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Face Time: Voters Young and Old Judge By Looks

Forget campaign ads and stump speeches, apparently all we really need to see during an election are the candidates themselves.

In a study recently published in the journal Science, John Antonakis, professor of organizational behavior at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, and his graduate student Olaf Dalgas found that both adults and children as young as 5 are able to predict the outcomes of elections purely on the basis of the candidates' appearance. (This dovetails with research reported recently, which found that Sarah Palin's good looks likely hurt her campaign. And we've also noted that, at least in the world of consumption, snap decisions may be the best ones.)


The researchers first showed a selection of paired photographs of political candidates from a 2002 French parliamentary election to "naïve" Swiss adults (i.e. those unfamiliar with any of the politicians). By making snap judgments on which candidate "looked more competent," the adults had a 72 percent chance of predicting the real results of each election.

Similar results were observed in a second experiment where the researchers asked 681 children between the age of 5 and 13 to play a simple computer game in which a boat must safely make a trip from Troy to Ithaca. After the game, they gave the children two photographs of real-life political opponents and asked them which they'd prefer to be the captain of their boat. Like the adults, the children had a 71 percent probability of selecting the real election winner based on who they thought looked competent enough to hold a leadership position.

Age was not a factor in the accuracy of the children's predictions, and the children's results were indistinguishable from those of the adults.

In both experiments, Antonakis and Dalgas were careful to show participants only candidate pairs of the same race and gender to prevent bias in the results. Antonakis mused, "I am quite sure (that given) a large enough sample, we would have found sex stereotypes operating. Psychology research has established quite well that for male-oriented job roles — like politics in the U.S., which is very male dominated — women tend to get the short end of the stick."

While they and other scientists cannot specifically say what physical characteristics make a person look more competent, Antonakis and Dalgas believe voters are "inordinately biased by the facial appearances of candidates."

"Evidently, young children, who are less experienced than are adults in observing performance in complex domains ... can predict election results retrospectively," they concluded in their article. "These findings suggest that voters are not appropriately weighing performance-based information on political candidates when undertaking one of democracy's most important civic duties."

On a side note, the researchers did show some children the candidate pairs of Obama-Clinton and Obama-McCain, and found they were able to prospectively predict the outcome of both the Democratic primary and the presidential election. Antonakis cautioned that "we not get too excited by these results" as the research team did not identify whether the children were actually familiar with the U.S. politicians prior to the experiment. 

Though I do wonder what the results of a Biden-Palin experiment would have been ...

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