How to spot a winner in politics

Proponents of political substance might well feel disappointed by the results of studies carried out by a team of professors from Aarhus University who have found that non-verbal cues could play a large role in determining who we decide is our preferred candidate

Voters might like to think they choose their favourite candidate based on merit. But according to recent research our voting habits aren’t always that rational.

Take the campaign posters that are plastered across Denmark before every election. Often depicting just the candidate’s face and their political party, you might wonder whether it’s an effective marketing strategy. After all, can a person’s face be enough to secure a vote?

Yes say two professors at Aarhus University – Lasse Laustsen and Michael Bang Petersen – who have found that being attractive can, under certain cirucumstances, be an advantage.

“Just from looking at a collection of anonymous candidate portraits, people can often choose the most successful candidate,” explains Laustsen. “From past research and our own, we know there are two main factors that influence this. First is a candidate’s overall attractiveness. The second is the appearance of competence, which is also associated with attractiveness, but also with facial maturity and masculinity.”

Looking like a winner

Their findings are based on a study in which they asked high school students to look at the photographs of 268 candidates running across three local elections in Denmark. The students had no prior knowledge of the candidates, and were shown candidates from different parts of the country than where they lived. Each subject was then asked to rate the candidate’s attractiveness and appearance of competence.

“The results revealed that many of those with the highest scores were the winning candidates,” says Laustsen, adding that the study could not determine whether it was the candidate’s attractiveness or their appearance of competence that played a more significant role in their success.

Laustsen argues that the study raised questions about whether the appearance of masculinity or dominance is always important to a candidate success. In a separate set of studies, they found that while you might assume that a dominant or powerful look would be an asset for most politicians, it doesn’t always bring success.

One of the most notable experiments used altered portraits of parliament members Ole Hækkerup and Troels Ravn. The portraits were morphed to look more masculine and more feminine. The masculine faces were made to appear wider, with larger jaws, cheeks, and brow ridges. While the feminine faces were modified to become narrower, with softer facial features, and larger eyes.

“Subjects were shown one photo that was manipulated to look more or less dominant from the original, and were then asked to state how much they agreed with a policy proposal from the politician they had just seen,” explained Laustsen.

“The results revealed that conservative subjects were more persuaded to support the policy proposal when Ravn or Hækkerup looked more dominant, while liberal subjects were more persuaded to support the policy proposal when Ravn or Hækkerup appeared less dominant.”

It’s difficult to determine precisely why this link between facial preference and ideology occurs, says Laustsen. But the duo speculates that voters generally associate certain facial traits with certain ideological positions, which inherently influence their preferences.

“People have been shown to be more persuaded by sources whose ideology matches their own presumably because they find such sources both more credible and easier to identify with,” he explains. “A dominant or powerful look is associated with being conservative (and a Republican in the US), while a non-dominant look with being a liberal (and a Democrat in the US).”

Conflict voters

While our political standpoint might influence which candidates we find appealing, there is something far deeper influencing which political wing we prefer. Laustsen points out that studies have found our perception of the degree of conflict in society often correlates with our political preferences – right wing voters generally view society as more conflict-ridden than left wing voters.

“We also know that some people are more inclined to think it is OK to dominate others,” says Laustsen.

He and Petersen examined whether there was a link between this inclination to dominate, and voter preferences. To do so they used a Social Dominance Orientation measure that was designed to measure an individual’s preference for hierarchy in social systems, and their stance in relation to dominance over lower-status groups.

“Again, right wing voters were more oriented towards social dominance and this in turn seemed to be the driver of their stronger preferences for dominant candidate faces. Skin-conductance tests also show that right-wing individuals display stronger physiological responses when exposed to threat provoking stimuli such as a photo of a large spider or sudden loud noises. This again tells a story about deep-seated differences between liberals and conservatives, which potentially leads to different candidate preferences.”

Predictive abilities

According to Laustsen, in times of social conflict such as war, right-wing parties will have an edge, as voters will generally lean towards a candidate who presents themselves as a protector with a more dominant appearance.

“In contrast, when facing peaceful conditions, subjects prefer leaders with less dominant and more feminine looks,” the study reports.

However, even with all this knowledge, it’s still not possible to predict the results of national elections, says Laustsen.

“The effects of physical appearances tend to dissipate the more recognisable a candidate is,” he explains. “Once a politician is well-known they won’t be subject to the same kind of stereotyping.”

But according to Laustsen, the research could prove useful for smaller elections.

“We have found a connection between facial dominance and electoral success of real world politicians and we have backed it up with a series of experimental studies,” he explains.

“I don’t think we can predict which party wins a specific election, but our results suggest that we might be able to predict which candidate within a given party stands a good chance of getting elected.” M


By Lesley Price

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