Baby-faced politicians lose

Greg Laun pointed me to this paper by Alexander Todorov, Anesu Mandisodza, Amir Goren, and Crystal Hall, whose abstract states:

Inferences of competence based solely on facial appearance predicted the outcomes of U.S. congressional elections better than chance (e.g., 68.8% of the Senate races in 2004) and also were linearly related to the margin of victory. These inferences were specific to competence and occurred within a 1-second exposure to the faces of the candidates. The findings suggest that rapid, unreflective trait inferences can contribute to voting choices, which are widely assumed to be based primarily on rational and deliberative considerations.

It looks pretty interesting. I’d also like to see things broken down by elections that were and were not seriously contested. Even without appearance, we can predict something on the order of 90% of races just based on incumbency and the partisan preferences of the voters in the states and districts. This is not at all to dismiss the finding but rather to place it in the context of other factors affecting voting.

You have to be careful in interpreting the results, however. Todorov et al. seem to be saying that individual voters’ visual “inferences of competence” are affecting votes. Another story, perhaps more plausible, is that the more competent-looking people are the ones who rose to political success.

The accompanying editorial in the journal (by Leslie Zebrowitz and Joann Montepare) associates the appearance of competence with not looking baby-faced. But I’m amused by the part of the editorial that puzzles over why appearance isn’t the only thing that matters: “When does perceived competence fail to predict election outcomes? Todorov et al. found that more competent-looking candidates were defeated in 30% of races. One possible explanation is that face biases could have favored babyfaced candidates in those particular contests. . . .” I mean, sure the findings are interesting, but chill out! Can’t you be satisfied with predicting 70% of the time? That seems pretty good to me!

Finally, that “68.8%” in the abstract is funny. People just don’t know about rounding. (And, of course, Table 1 should be a time series graph. But I do give them credit for doing a secret-weapon-style display.)

7 thoughts on “Baby-faced politicians lose

  1. Bob,

    It says in the article that they did an analysis controlling for age and found the same results.

    But as I said above, I don't buy their explanation of their findings, and I think it's funny that the journal hyped it so much. I guess it pleases the cognitive scientists to think that something as important and seemingly complicated as voting is just some simple first-impression process. Just as, at the next level, it pleases biologists to think that something as important and seemingly complicated as psychology is just some simple selfish-gene thing.

  2. One question I am confused: what is the difference between the two interpretations in logics? Isn't that people with competent appearance tend to win 70% of races, then more possibly to rise to political success?

  3. Anon,

    The difference is that the article and commentary implied that voters are deciding who to vote for based on quick impressions of the appearance of competence.

    My hypothesis is that: (a) more competent-appearing people have more success in politics, starting at the backroom level, (b) more successful politicians will appear more competent (they can hire better hairdressers, etc.), and (c) people who are richer, more successful, etc., are more likely to look competent in a photo and they're also better-prepared to succeed in politics. (Compare, for example, an incumbent congressmember with some bozo from the other party who's on a suicide mission in a highly partisan district.)

    Either way, you get the correlation between vote-getting and the appearance of competence, but you don't necessarily come to the conclusion that vote choice is based on appearance.

  4. I would like to see the photos used for this study. I would imagine that something like age, race, and gender could account for a lot of competence ratings.

    Also, if you can predict 90% of the races based on factors that are known to be influential, does that imply that an indicator variable that predicts 70% of the races is unlikely to add any real information?

    For example, suppose you had all of the information you normally use to predict elections (incumbency, etc). If you were in a position to bet on all the elections, would you pay anything for a list of the thin-slice competence ratings?

  5. Hmmmm. My late mentor, James N. Schubert, did a lot of work on this. For instance, individuals of ages 12-80+, shown both stills and 10-second clips of the candidates speaking (no sound) uniformly accurately picked out the only three viable candidates (from 19, I think) in the first real Romanian presidential election. They also uniformly ranked the three lowest vote-getting candidates on the bottom. In between there was remarkable consistency in the ranking compared to the actual vote (around .85 correlation for the entire series, as I remember).

    This was among 100s of respondents from 4-5 US states, jr high through graduate students, old folks homes, 7-8 other nations and so on.

    His later work showed both a distaste for 'neotony' (the baby-face look) and aging effects. Respondents want a healthy-looking, mature (relatively prominent brow ridge, square jaw, prominent cheekbones — all testosterone markers), confident-looking candidates.

    Later work using the female Democratic US Representatives produced similar results across races. Race appeared to be relatively unimportant compared to facial characteristics. He used 20-second clips of the women reading identical speeches into the Congressional record at the same podium when they were unhappy with a Republican action in the middle '90s, so there was remarkable consistency in view.

    Anyway, he rarely found (including in later work) more than a 2-3% shift in vote intention, but that's enough to win many elections, right Al Gore?

    If the info were good enough, I'd use it to bet on otherwise close elections.

    Oh, yeah, we also like people with VERY regular features, based on symmetry and some 15 facial measurements. Bill Clinton is the most symmetrical face in politics over the past 3 decades or so.

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