Following up on Todorov’s studies, political scientists Chappell Lawson and Gabriel Lenz found that the subjects most likely to rely on assessments of competence from a face alone are voters who don’t know much about politics but watch a lot of television. In other words, they’re the folks most likely to see images of the candidates, even if they’re not taking in information about those candidates, and even if they’re switching the channel the instant presidential debates come on.
Todorov and other scholars have also looked at how clusters of traits interact. They asked subjects to look at photos of candidate pairs from real elections and judge how good-looking and competent they appeared, as well as whether those politicians appeared likely to lie to them or to physically threaten them. They found that attractiveness is not an unalloyed asset to a politician. Candidates who were good-looking but also appeared incompetent faired quite poorly in real elections, as if the traits exacerbated one another. (Paging Rick Perry.) They also found that those candidates who appeared threatening in the lab actually tended to lose elections 65 percent of the time.
There’s some evidence that our preference for certain facial traits is situational. A British study compared images of George W. Bush and of John Kerry that had been blended with other faces in such a way that their basic face shape and features were maintained but the politicians themselves were no longer recognizable. Facing hypothetical elections, subjects preferred the Bush-like face during wartime, and the Kerry-like face during peacetime. The authors speculated that Bush’s face had more masculine and dominant characteristics, which subjects appeared to prefer during hawkish periods.
Taken all together, these new studies suggest that how a politician’s face appeals to voters, or doesn’t, can’t be boiled down to just one factor. Rather, voters look at a candidate and make a series of instant judgments based on a number of traits. Then, of course, in many cases, they listen to the candidate, they consider the issues, and they do all the things rational voters are supposed to do. Skin-deep inferences aren’t all that voters rely on, though they may have an outsized effect on the decision-making process.
“I tend to think that what happens is we get an emotional reaction to someone and that sets the stage for everything else, for the way we process information about them,” says Lee Budesheim, a psychologist at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., who has studied the impact of candidate attractiveness.
There may be one other factor that influences our judgments about candidate appearance, and it is highly individual. In a 2008 study, Stanford University actually morphed images of unfamiliar political candidates with pictures of their lab subjects, unbeknownst to their subjects. The effect was subtle, maintaining the basic look of the candidate, with just a hint of the subject’s face superimposed on it.
As researchers expected, subjects preferred the image of the candidate morphed with their own picture. They didn’t recognize their own faces, but on some level they recognized something familiar and similar to themselves. And in politics, it seems, familiarity breeds attraction. After all, who’s more competent and trustworthy than you?