Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Running for Office? You Better Look the Part

Got plans on being the next big thing in politics?  You gotta look the part.

An article in the latest Time, elaborating on research published in the American Journal of Political Science, discusses how people infer vitally important personality traits about a candidate from the face alone.  What traits?  The ones that tend to matter in elections, such as competence, honesty, trustworthiness, intelligence, etc.

And yes, there is a knowledge angle.  Here's a graph from the Time piece:
They combined data about voters in the 2006 elections—including their vote choice, political knowledge and TV exposure—with data about the candidates' faces, specifically ratings people gave about how "competent" the candidates were based on looks alone. All told, they analyzed 35 gubernatorial races and 29 Senate races, and they found that "low-knowledge individuals" who watched above-average amounts of TV were about six times more likely to vote for the more competent-looking person than those who watched little TV. They were also much more susceptible than those who had "high-knowledge" of politics. (The Onion headline for this rather unsurprising find would likely read "Ignorant Couch Potatoes Less Likely To Make Thoughtful Decisions.")
Those of you steeped in persuasion or processing theories such as the Elaboration Likelihood Model will of course not be surprised by the findings.  "Low-knowledge individuals" tend to be those who are less motivated and less able to deal with information, so they're more likely to use shortcuts to make sense of politics. In social science we call these heurstics, or cues.  Basically, they make life easier for those who either don't care or aren't able to deeply consider a situation or issue (or here, a candidate).
As the authors say in their abstract: "we find that appealing-looking politicians benefit disproportionately from television exposure, primarily among less knowledgeable individuals."
All I can say is it's a good thing I didn't go into politics.  Got a face for radio, and a voice for newspapers.

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