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."
Letting Thoughts Get in the Way
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.
Another group was allowed to deliberate — they were asked to think carefully about which candidate was more competent, and make a well-thought-out decision.
The deliberation group did worse than both of the snap judgment groups in predicting the winner of the election.
"These findings confirm that a significant portion of electoral judgments — and, therefore, choices — are not based on rational, deliberative assessments of the most important factors, such as a candidate's record and policy positions," said Jack Glaser, assistant professor at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. "Rather, they are, to a substantial degree, based on inferences made from superficial characteristics of candidates."
Why We Decide So Quickly
Previous research in this field has yielded some clues as to how people can make such snap judgments.
"[It] was an extremely small amount of time, but humans are experts in face processing," Little said. "Humans are fascinated by faces, and we have specialized brain mechanisms to process them."
In a study published earlier this year, Little and other U.K. researchers at the University of Stirling and the University of Liverpool found that differences in facial shapes alone could predict who won or lost in major elections.
In addition, they found that changing the context from wartime to peacetime, in hypothetical votes, led to dramatically different voter preferences.
During hypothetical wartime, voters preferred computerized faces that were more "masculine," while during peacetime voters preferred faces that were more "feminine."
"We found that individuals changed their opinion of who they would vote for based on context; dominant faces in a time of war, more friendly appearing faces in a time of peace," said Little.
"In this sense, there is no absolute right choice of leader — leaders might be selected according to the task that lies before them, and appearance may then interact with conscious or unconscious decisions about context."
Candidates may already innately understand some of the human nature behind this study. According to the psychologists who read the study, it may even explain some of the more amusing aspects of running for office.
"The burden needs to be placed on the voter, the campaigns and the media to provide good information about candidates so people can make choices based on substance, and not physical appearance," said Glaser. "And until that happens, we can keep expecting candidates to spend $200 on their haircuts — that's the rational thing for them to do in this environment."