You might not be able to tell a book by its cover, but it seems that more often than not you can guess someone’s political affiliation simply by studying his or her face.
At least that’s what Nicholas Rule found when he asked undergraduate research subjects at Tufts University to look at black-and-white photographs of strangers and guess whether they were Democrats or Republicans.
Nearly 60 percent of the time they got it right.
“That’s not a huge effect,” says Rule, a doctoral student in psychology, “but it is significantly better than chance. You can’t just walk down the street and point out a Democrat or a Republican, but there is a signal there that’s coming through.”
Looking over his results, Rule had a hunch just what that signal might be. He had another group of students review the pictures (drawn from yearbook photos of students at another college who belonged to political clubs) and rate them for qualities of power and warmth.
When he correlated the ratings for each face with that person’s political affiliation, his hunch paid off. “The people who seemed more warm had a higher number of people categorizing them as Democrat,” he says. Meanwhile those whose pictures projected power were more likely to be judged as Republicans.
Rule believes his test subjects relied on internalized stereotypes about the two parties to assess the political leanings of the faces they were shown.
“The more powerful someone looks, the more likely they are to be categorized as Republican, and the more warm someone looks, the more likely they are to be categorized as a Democrat,” Rule explains.
The study, titled “Democrats and Republicans Can Be Differentiated from Their Faces,” was co-authored with faculty advisor Nalini Ambady and published online at PLoS One. In its first phase, Rule downloaded photos of candidates in the 2004 and 2006 U.S. Senate elections from the CNN Web site, then cropped them and rendered them in grayscale for uniformity.
Impressed by the students’ accuracy in assessing the professional politicians, Rule focused the second phase of the study on the photos of College Republicans and Young Democrats, again editing them for consistency.
It is part of a sizable body of social psychology research illustrating our subliminal ability to read subtle characteristics in other people’s faces. For instance, Rule and others have shown that we can rapidly judge a person’s sexual orientation with 60 to 70 percent accuracy. Rule and Ambady earlier found that politicians whose faces were perceived as powerful were more likely to win. They also have discovered that CEOs with what are judged to be dominant features run more profitable companies.
Human brains have specialized neurons dedicated to assessing the facial expressions of others, Rule notes. “We can tell lots of things about people from their nonverbal behavior, and their faces in particular,” he says. “The face is the biggest source of nonverbal behavior that we have.”
A possible shortcoming in the politics study methodology is that it was conducted at a Northeastern college, Rule says. It raises the possibility that regional stereotypes about Democrats and Republicans affected the results.
“It would be interesting to re-run this study in the Deep South and see if the traits were being associated differently,” he says. “I suspect they probably wouldn’t, because I think the stereotypes about Democrats and Republicans are pretty widespread.”
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