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Don’t believe the hype (another reference to the “baby-faced politicians lose” study)

I was reading this otherwise-excellent article by Elizabeth Kolbert and came across this:

Like neoclassical economics, much democratic theory rests on the assumption that people are rational. Here, too, empirical evidence suggests otherwise. Voters, it has been demonstrated, are influenced by factors ranging from how names are placed on a ballot to the jut of a politician’s jaw. . . . A 2005 study, conducted by psychologists at Princeton, showed that it was possible to predict the results of congressional contests by using photographs. Researchers presented subjects with fleeting images of candidates’ faces. Those candidates who, in the subjects’ opinion, looked more “competent” won about seventy per cent of the time.

I can’t really comment on the bit about democratic theory, but I do want to put in a word about this study of candidates’ faces. It’s a funny result: at first it seems impressive–70% accuracy!–but then again it’s not so impressive given that you 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. If 90% of the races are essentially decided a year ahead of time, what does it mean to say that voters are choosing 70% correct based on the candidates’ looks.

I can’t be sure what’s happening here, but one possibility is that the more serious candidates (the ones we know are going to win anyway) are more attractive. Maybe you have some goofy-looking people who decide to run in districts where they don’t have a chance, whereas the politicians who really have a shot at being in congress take the time to get their hair cut, etc. More discussion here (see also the comments).

Anyway, the point of this note is just that some skepticism is in order. It’s fun to find some scientific finding that seems to show the shallowness of voters, but watch out! 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.


  1. Steve Roth says:

    Maybe those voters aren't so crazy and irrational after all:

    <a href="” target=”_blank”>…” target=”_blank”>
    Was it Sam Goldwyn who said, "Only a fool does not judge by appearances."

  2. Jean-Luc says:

    Or may be any kind of prediction technique will do if voters are locked in Circular Mills

  3. Jean-Luc says:

    Or may be any kind of prediction technique will do if voters are locked in Circular Mills

  4. mjm says:

    The 70% figure shows up here, too, from Science:

    Talk about "gaydar." In just a fraction of a second, people can accurately judge the sexual orientation of other individuals by glancing at their faces, according to new research. The finding builds on the growing theory that the subconscious mind detects and probably guides much more of human behavior than is realized.

  5. KMC says:

    Given that many voters know nothing about most candidates, their first impression is their only impression :)

  6. Mr. ADSL says:

    Well, every now and then "researchers" come up with this. Here in Europe, to be more specific in The Netherlands, we had last elections round someone who found somewhere after digging and digging a link centuries ago. It seemed that all our vice-premiers were originally from the same family.

    No, not from the year 0, but around the 3rd century. Even the Circular Mills theory makes more sense ;-)

  7. Adam Hyland says:

    I agree wholeheartedly that skepticism should be the order of the day for these sorts of studies, but we have an uphill battle to fight if we start from the assumption of the rational voter.

    We also must realize that some sound hypothetical statements can be made about group identification and trust, appearances of competence and likability. A not-insignificant body of theory and research exists to say that group associations are made by largely subconscious visual cues.

    This research ( [PDF!]) attempts to correct for some confounds. Faces of politicians are shown momentarily to subjects and the voters are asked to make a snap judgment. Then faces of relative unknowns are morphed with the faces of known politicians in order to make a mix that would still probably be unknown but exhibit some undercurrent of similarity to a popular figure. Certain faces triggered significantly different responses (e.g. Hillary Clinton and Dick Cheney).

    This is not to say that voter necessarily make decisions in the voting booth the same way they make them in the test. But I think that it is fair to say subconscious (read: irrational) feelings impact our decisions about these leaders.

    mjm posted above a normal response from someone educated and knowledgeable with regard to politics. I'm not going to argue that most voters are well informed, but I think we are kidding ourselves if we feel that the educated and interested among us come to decisions about political figures in a fundamentally different way. We may not make snap decisions at the voting booth, but our first impression of the candidate (or whatever you would like to call it) influences what information we assimilate about them and how we assimilate it. I am not immune to good news about Mr. Bush but I am not as readily amenable to the concept as I might be about other politicians.

  8. greg says:

    I copied their data by sight into a spreadsheet, and it looks like snap judgments only predict election outcomes when one of the parties wins by more than about 1.7 standard deviations. For closer races, they are worse than flipping a coin

    If some races are decided a year in advance, then we would expect voter choice to have the most effect on the closest races. Instead, it looks like snap judgments do most of their "predicting" for landslide races where the election was decided before such judgments could feasibly be made.