Let’s Face It

By: Ailin Elyasi  |  November 2, 2016

Most people would like to think that when American voters push aside the curtains and look at the ballot choices this November, we will participate in the democratic process as informed citizens who have carefully assessed both candidates. People would like to think that the democratic process relies on a candidate’s principles and political policies, and that all else comes second to the important issues. Many would like to think that the ballot choice we will make this November is different than that of an uninformed five-year-old child. However, research shows that, despite how reasonable we like to believe that we are, a group of children were able to predict the outcome of a French parliamentary election based merely on the pictures of the candidates.

In a 2009 study done by psychologists John Antonakis and Olaf Dalgas from the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, Swiss adults were asked to pick the most competent candidate from pictures of two men. Little did the participants know that these two men were actual candidates from the 2002 French parliamentary election. The results were stunning: seventy-two percent of the Swiss adults chose the actual winner of the French parliamentary election. Perhaps more surprising was that when children were shown the same two pictures and were asked which adult they would choose as the captain of their ship, the children picked the election winner seventy-one percent of the time. Since both children and adults chose the same candidate, the study suggests that basic instincts learned at a young age play a major role in elections, more so than carefully considered decision-making.

Obviously, election results can depend on everything from publicity to sex scandals. Hardcore members of political parties will always vote a certain way. However, if we could control for other variables and present two candidates who have passed the primaries, would a person’s appearance really have predictive validity in a presidential election? A Columbia University study by psychologists Charles C. Ballew II and Alexander Todorov indicated that perceived competence predicted an electoral winner. This time, participants were shown faces for milliseconds and had to make an unreflective inference. The split second decision of which candidate seemed more competent again correlated with the outcome of the election—from sixty six percent to seventy three percent of the time.

In general, facial cues indicate a lot about a person. For example, most people can interpret pursed lips and slightly shut eyes as an angry expression. Perhaps we judge candidates based on appearances in order to select for desirable traits or avoid undesirable ones in our leaders. However, facial expressions have never been linked to better leadership skills. If we choose the next leader of our country based on looks instead of with calculated judgement, are we really picking the best possible president? Let’s face it—the psychology of faces might be able to predict our next president better than we can.allin-elyasi