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Does this facial expression make me look competent?

It can be a struggle to maintain confidence in the rationality of the electorate.

It can be a struggle to maintain confidence in the rationality of the electorate. A recent scholarly study of how facial appearance correlates to election results won’t help.

In a paper titled “Elected in 100 Milliseconds,” a British and American team that studies human responses to non-verbal communication found that voters, exposed to the faces of political candidates, make judgments in the first 10 milliseconds (that’s one one-hundredth of a second) about the candidate’s competence. This impression, once formed, is difficult to overcome and correlates with the outcome of elections.

“Competence” is the key quality voters look for when judging candidates, which would be good if the judgment was based on real evidence of competence. But the key attributes voters use in reaching this conclusion is whether the voter finds the candidate’s face “mature” and “attractive.”

The researchers — Christopher Olivola of University College  in London and Alexander Todorov of Princeton University — manipulated the facial appearance of candidates to see if they would get different reactions from focus groups, and they did. Once they identified the facial characteristics that communicated competence at a glance, they also studied the real faces of real candidates and election outcomes and found a significant correlation between the candidates with the right faces and electoral success.

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They found four personality traits — inferred from an instant glimpse of the candidates’ faces — that voters were looking for in candidates. In addition to an appearance of “competence,” which was the most powerful predictor of voting preference, the voters’ perception of “dependability” and “emotional stability” correlated with electoral success, while a face that communicates “carelessness” is a negative.