Face Off: How first impressions decide elections

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Facial traits play a central role in shaping voter perceptions of political candidates.


What if you could predict the outcome of elections just by looking the faces of the candidates? A growing body of political psychology research is doing just that.

We’re now learning that facial traits play a central role in shaping voter perceptions of political leaders and a decisive role when it comes to electing them. And while we don’t have exact figures, the latest studies suggest that ephemeral cues like facial traits are decisive for between a fifth and a third of all voters.

What we do know is that the closer the race is and the higher it is on the ballot, the more candidate appearances matter. This is partly due to the additional media exposure. After all, when more people encounter images of the candidates, more people can use appearance-based cues as decision criteria. But just as important, high profile contests attract greater numbers of low-information voters to the polls and receive more of their votes than contests further down the ballot (due to down-ballot drop-off). In other words, high profile contests are more likely to be decided by the people who are most susceptible to the influence of facial traits.

We all know about the power of first impressions, but it’s only in the last decade that psychologists have determined how quickly they form and how influential they really are. We begin to form stable, coherent opinions about other people after a mere 33 milliseconds of exposure to their faces. This is bewilderingly fast, given that it takes the brain 100 to 200 milliseconds just to initiate a saccadic eye movement. Before we begin even the most basic visual exploration of a face, we’re already leaping to conclusions about whether a person is trustworthy, competent, or threatening.

Even more astonishing: these “rapid facial trait judgments” unconsciously determine how many people vote. Conventional wisdom once held that attractive candidates had the edge in elections, but now we know that competent looking candidates do. This seems to be a universal human preference, rooted deep in our evolutionary past. Voters from Alabama to Zimbabwe want leaders with square jaws, high cheekbones, and large eyes. And without even realizing it, they’re picking them at the ballot box.

The psychology of social perception is challenging old assumptions about the way we choose leaders, but it’s also creating new opportunities for political strategists who understand the research and its implications. Here are a few examples of how facial trait psychology can give political analysts and strategists the winning edge:

Election Forecasting

Using competence judgments, psychologists have developed a technique that correctly predicts election results seven times out of 10. When the results are correct, they’re usually astonishingly close to the margin of victory in the actual election. Psychologists have also devised an extremely clever way to disguise the faces of widely recognized leaders like presidential candidates without sacrificing any real predictive power.

Candidate Recruitment

It’s almost impossible to accurately poll a hypothetical candidate match-up months or years before an election. But using competence judgments, we can cheaply and quickly test an unlimited number of hypothetical matchups. We can also walk away with a clear frontrunner. In other words, we can identify the candidate who will win at least two-thirds of the time, whether the election is in three weeks, three months, or three years.

Targeting

Competence judgments can also be used to identify vulnerable incumbents. Leaders in your own party with low-competence faces are likely to need extra help in their campaigns. As much as possible, it’s probably best to keep their faces out of the media and of their most widely circulated advertising materials. As for your opponents with low-competence faces, it may be easier to defeat them than you think, especially if the challenger is blessed with a high-competence face.

Branding

Competence judgments may be decisive at the ballot box, but judgments about everything from likeability to dominance continue to shape our perceptions even years after we get to know people. If tests show your opponent has a mean-looking face, branding him or her as mean will resonate with the voters, and neither your opponent nor the voters will realize why. To most voters, your attacks will just feel like they must be true, whether or not they actually are. Likewise, candidates whose faces score high in trustworthiness and other positive traits should make those traits a core part of their brand.

Psychologists believe the universal preference for competent faces reflects a genuine and universal desire for competent leaders. So take every opportunity you can to cast doubt on your opponent’s competence, but don’t forget you’ll still need to demonstrate your own.

David Rosen is the founder of First Person Politics, where he brings clients in politics, advocacy, and consulting the most cutting edge ideas and tools from political psychology.


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