Does this facial expression make me look competent?

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.

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.

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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by John E Iacono on 06/17/2010 - 10:54 am.

    We ALL do it, and not just with political candidates. We make an instantaneous judgement, whether we advert to it or not, of the clerk who steps up to the counter at McDonalds, the cop who stops us on the road, the stranger at our door, and the person coming toward us on the street.

    And it doesn’t just deal with competence. It deals with all the factors which may concern us, including danger, honesty, communications ability, and many more factors.

    These initial impressions are not always correct, but we trust them implicitly until direct experience PROVES them wrong. Because our survival and well being depend on them. And this is not only not a flaw — it’s a good thing.

    I remember my dad, when first seeing Nixon on TV, remarking “That guy’s a crook.” And I have a number of times, on seeing someone for the first time on TV, remarking to whoever was present: “Would you buy a used car from that guy?”

    Sometimes we are wrong in those first impressions, but it is remarkable how often we are right. I think it comes from millenia of evolution, where our senses pick up MUCH more than what our conscious, thinking brains are aware of.

    So I have no problem with that at all.

  2. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 06/17/2010 - 01:23 pm.

    “Would you buy a used car from that guy?”

    It’s a warhorse of a quote but a good one.

  3. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 06/17/2010 - 01:45 pm.

    Unfortunately, our built in tendency to make instant decisions was more adaptive out on the savanna than it is in the more complex environments we live in now.
    However, it IS possible to learn to ‘slow down and count to ten’ (or as high as possible) and make better choices.
    Thaler and Sunsteins’ ‘Nudge’ makes a good argument in their distinction between the ‘Automatic’ and ‘Reflective’ selves (aside from the gratuitous reification, that is).
    Our evolutionary history is not an excuse, and cutting the funding for education is not an answer.

  4. Submitted by dan buechler on 06/17/2010 - 03:16 pm.

    When I see most pictures of Emmer it looks likes he is performing the valsalva maneuver. Also the pictures of Seifert when he lost the election showed so much relief. Frankly I’ve never seen so much emotion in one candidate. He talked at length honestly about the grind the last year was.

  5. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/17/2010 - 10:34 pm.

    The only problem with the idea of democracy is that the average IQ is 100, and critical thinking does not come naturally to most people.

  6. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 06/18/2010 - 09:00 am.

    Actually, the average IQ is about 110 (it was never completely renormalized), but critical thinking is a learned behavior; intelligence by itself is no guarantee!

  7. Submitted by John E Iacono on 06/18/2010 - 05:26 pm.

    Some people have always thought that the government should be run by the “wise” among us. Many other governments have been designed that way. Plato would have approved.

    Unfortunately for those people, our founders (though they shared a preference for government by the “wise”) gave us a government based on the new and strange idea that “all men (not just the wise or rich or powerful) are created equal,” and over time we have given the vote to ANYONE, wise or not, who is a citizen.

    It has been predicted, over and over again, that the country would come to ruination if we extended the vote to those without property, to those with black skins, to those who could not pass a literacy test, to women, and to relative newcomers. It has not happened, though some who see their power diminished feel it has.

    For myself, I don’t give a whit how smart, rich or powerful a person is — all are created equal in my eyes. I have seen too many smart, crooked, lying persons running things into the ground both in government and out of it to want to prefer them in any way.

    I also don’t care if s/he is rich or poor. I will take a Lincoln or a Roosevelt all other things being equal.

    If a person is honest, sincere, does not hate his/her fellow citizen, is earnest enough to earn his/her way in life, and loves his/her family s/he will get my ear if s/he wants to run for office.

    I do admit to being uncomfortable with members of the “intelligentsia” who think they have a RIGHT to tell others what to think and do, particularly those who make it worse by believing its “who you know, not what you know” that counts.

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