If faces are any indication, the 2008 campaign may already be over.
People who are shown candidates' faces for less than one second can correctly predict the winner of gubernatorial and senatorial races significantly better than chance alone, according to a new study published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
In the study, performed by researchers at Princeton University, between 64 and 120 undergraduate students were enrolled in each of several experiments. They were asked to look briefly at pictures of two gubernatorial or senatorial candidates they did not know.
They were then asked to "use their gut" to decide immediately who was more competent based on facial appearance alone.
The best results, surprisingly, came from an experiment in which the participants had to choose the more competent candidate for actual 2006 gubernatorial and senatorial elections — before the elections had taken place.
In these trials, participants could correctly predict the winner of gubernatorial races 69 percent of the time, and senatorial races 72 percent of the time — despite having never seen the candidates.
"One implication is that voting decisions are not necessarily rational decisions," said lead study author Alexander Todorov, assistant professor of psychology at Princeton University. "You should get competence from objective records of performance, instead of facial appearance, but ... I think they may not be doing this consciously; it could be something that they are subconsciously engaged in."
Psychological experts not affiliated with the study agreed that voters may indeed — either consciously or subconsciously — be powerfully influenced by a candidate's appearance.
"With the growing visual exposure we have to candidates, we are increasingly making election decisions based on how we feel when we experience the candidates, be it on television, in person or in a picture," said Bryant L. Welch, clinical psychologist and author of the forthcoming book "State of Confusion: Political Manipulation and the Assault on the American Mind."
"These feeling states occur subliminally and come from the deepest recesses of our minds," said Welch. "If we are asked why we voted as we did, we reflexively attribute our decision to 'competence.'"
"What is important here is that, despite the pressure not to judge people based on their appearance, and the huge amount of other information provided to voters, there seems to be a surprisingly strong association between visual judgments and actual election choice," said Anthony Little, research fellow in the School of Psychology at the University of Stirling, in Britain.
"Not only is this true, but it occurs as a very basic and extremely fast process, requiring only a glance at the faces of the people involved," he said. "This suggests visual appearance has a powerful effect on decisions we might strongly expect to be based on other types of information."
Another surprising finding was that people who actually took time to think about their choices did worse in predicting the winner of the election.
In one of the experiments, two groups of participants were forced to make snap judgments — either by seeing the pictures of the candidates for only one-quarter of a second, or by being forced to make their final decisions within two seconds.