June 09, 2005
Babyfaced Politicians Lose Elections

Alexander Todorov, on the faculty of the Psychology Department at Princeton University, has found that when people are shown quick exposures to pictures of politicians they can rate them on perceived competence and that rating mirrors how those politicians did in elections for the US House of Representatives and US Senate.

Psychologist Alexander Todorov of Princeton University had volunteers look at black-and-white photographs of House and Senate winners and losers from elections in 2000 and 2002, and the competing candidates prior to the 2004 contests. The faces had to be unknown to the participants; images of Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., John McCain, R-Ariz., and John Kerry, D-Mass., for example, were immediately eliminated.

``It was just on facial appearance, it could not be influenced by any other information,'' Todorov said in an interview.

The study found that the candidate perceived as more competent was the winner in 72 percent of the Senate races and 67 percent of the House races.

Democracy is flawed because humans are shallow and superficial. Maybe blind voters make better decisions. Anyone up for restricting the voting franchise to the blind only? Ugly talented candidates would fare much better. Think about it.

The degree of competence tracked with the size of electoral victories.

“Inferences of competence not only predicted the winner but also were linearly related to the margin of victory,” the scientists wrote.

This will obviously lead to political parties using groups to screen potential candiates for perceived competence. So expect politicians of the future to look more competent on average as a result of recruitment efforts to attract more competent looking candidates.

The more competent looking candidates also looked less babyfaced.

In the second paper, Leslie Zebrowitz, of Brandeis University in Massachusetts, said that the results appeared to reflect the relative “baby-facedness” of the candidates.

Previous research has shown that people of any age who appear baby-faced, with a round face, large eyes, a small nose, a high forehead and a small chin, tend to be rated as less competent — though often as more trustworthy as well. “Although the study doesn’t tell us exactly what competence is — there are many kinds, including physical strength, social dominance and intellectual shrewdness.

Baby-faced people are perceived to be lacking in all these qualities,” Dr Zebrowitz said.

People do routinely "judge a book by its cover" in spite of countless adminitions not to. (have those admonitions helped at all?)

Despite the age-old admonition not to "judge a book by its cover," we routinely make important judgments about human traits based on instant, superficial impressions of peoples' faces. Such "blink of an eye" decision-making predicted the outcome of about 70 percent of recent U.S. Senate races, according to a new study in Science this week.

According to the study, candidates who looked "competent" prevailed in congressional elections more than two-thirds of the time. In a review of the study, Dr. Leslie Zebrowitz, a psychologist at Brandeis University, and Joann M. Montepare, explain that the outcomes of the political races were likely due to differences in the opponents' "babyfacedness."

"Although the study doesn't tell us exactly what competence is – there are many kinds, including physical strength, social dominance and intellectual shrewdness – babyfaced people are perceived to be lacking in all these qualities," said Zebrowitz, a pioneering research scientist in the field of facial impressions and author of "Reading Faces: Window to the Soul?"

What facial qualities make someone look more babyfaced and less competent? Zebrowitz says that both babies and babyfaced adults, regardless of sex or ethnicity, share such features as a round face, large eyes, small nose, high forehead and small chin. Competency, on the other hand, is associated with facial maturity.

The babyfaced men might actually be the better choices in spite of the electorate's aversion to babyfaces in leaders.

In fact, studies by Zebrowitz and others have shown that babyfaced men are actually more intelligent, better educated, more assertive and apt to win more military medals than their mature-looking counterparts.

Research in the area of facial impressions has implications for political marketing, social decision-making and even the democratic process, Zebrowitz believes. "The data we have suggest that we're not necessarily electing better leaders – people who are actually more competent, though we are electing people who look the part."

Expect to see ambitious young business executives and politicians seeking out plastic surgeons to ask for modifications to make them look more competent.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2005 June 09 11:23 PM  Brain Society

razib said at June 9, 2005 11:59 PM:

i'm baby faced.

Domo said at June 12, 2005 10:16 AM:

It's strange, but I remember reading an article about how some politicans are actually having their image photoshopped to make it appear MORE baby-like. The argument was that you tend to trust those people more. (I can't come up with the reference right now, but will post once I find it)

Adam said at June 15, 2005 5:54 AM:

It's not "democracy" that is flawed, it is elections. They aren't flawed because humans are superficial, they are flawed because they ask us to make a decision that we simply do not have enough information to make. The character of our representatives is important, but we have no way of judging their caracter accurately because we have never met these men--all we know about them is what we are told by third parties with an interest in the outcome of the election (and we don't have much ability to judge the reliability of those third parties either).

Ralph said at June 15, 2005 9:18 AM:

I have a question about this kind of study. Mr Todorov asked a few volunteers in his study. We have major problems in terms of sample size and selection bias. It would seem to me that one cannot make the kinds of conclusion he (and others) are drawing from this study with such a small size and selection bias.

fling93 said at June 15, 2005 12:12 PM:

Adam: They aren't flawed because humans are superficial, they are flawed because they ask us to make a decision that we simply do not have enough information to make.

Well, I do think the vast majority of voters don't even make use of the information available to them, and badly weight what information they do use.

I don't think meeting a politician helps, because you generally don't get very far in politics without a good deal of personal charisma, and that really skews the judgment of people they meet.

Polybius said at June 15, 2005 5:20 PM:

The last ugly talented President was Nixon. And look how that worked out.

Randall Parker said at June 15, 2005 5:24 PM:


Nixon wouldn't have been stupid enough to invade Iraq because he had a much more informed view of the national interest, was smart enough to sort through all the issues, and knew how to learn what he had to learn in order to pursue the national interest competently.

Bob Badour said at June 17, 2005 7:15 AM:

All I can say is: It's a good thing for all of us that babyfacedness does not show up as well on radio and in the newspaper, or Winston Churchill would never have been elected to office.

I suspect Democracy worked better before and during the Victorian era than it does today.

Allan Jenkins said at June 22, 2005 2:19 AM:

Polybius wrote: "The last ugly talented President was Nixon. And look how that worked out."

Actually, Nixon was considered pretty OK looking, in the mid/late 1960s, by the energetic middle-class he was trying to attract. He had a winning smile, he was fit, he was smart, he was a successful, well-paid attorney (that wasn't a pejorative 40 years ago) and writer, with plenty of time for vacations in sunny climes. Elegant wife, good-looking daughters.

No, Nixon's problems, and God knows they were legion, didn't include being unattractive. Of course, that's subjective judgement. And it's indisputable that Nixon on the defensive (1972-74 and, often, in retirement) often appeared devious and dishonest (which he often was). Actually, I sort of wish for more politicians whose tics so quickly give them away when they lie.

Nicole Tedesco said at October 9, 2008 8:25 AM:

What a prescient article, no? Who is winning this presidential election, the baby-faced or the competent-looking man? It is my experience that people judge first using their natural instincts then rationalize their judgments later. (Initial judgments may have been wrong, but most people will rationalize those judgments until the cows come home just so they wouldn't feel they made the wrong choice.) There exist exceptions however when you meet some people in person--you've met them, those that look incompetent but upon spending quality time with them you realize there is something very different about the person you are dealing with.

Adam had it correct however in that there is no way (in the very large scale) to possibly spend enough time with our candidates to really judge them properly. Fling93 is also correct about the charisma issue. With the latest studies on narcissism it seems like the very concept of leadership is flawed from a human perspective which means...what? I'm not sure. Narcissists are not necessarily better leaders, but will a superficial voter (what else could exist on the large scale) be able to elect anyone else? I mean, which choices could the voter possibly have? Who else would climb to the top of the political system in any country larger than Luxembourg or the Seychelle Islands?

Then there is a proposition I have been putting forth for a few years now: decisions that are made in the political sphere probably are made on shaky evidence, or (most likely) involve problems with so many trade-offs that optimal decision paths are far from clear. If a decision in a very large scale organization (a country) is obvious, then it is obvious enough to be left to purely administrative staff (e.g., a "secretary" of whatever). Problems without clear solutions however--the really difficult ones--end up in the political sphere because these problems, in the end, will be based on the only decision-making mechanism remaining to us humans under these circumstances, and that is our emotional talents. In these cases what would be the expected success ratio of the leaders we elect? If the problems are so difficult, could we expect any mere mortal to fair better than chance? Does it matter if we elect the narcissist, the genius, the intuitive, the merely competent or even the mediocre? Given this, could there be value in electing someone we feel is more competent above the other choices given to us? Assume, for instance, Barack Obama would not be any more or less competent in making presidential decisions than John McCain (especially given the difficult problems before us at this point in history). Is there value then in electing the more competent-looking Barack Obama over the baby-faced John McCain? If We the People feel better about our leader, are We more likely to build a better future for ourselves?

The Asbestos Mango said at December 2, 2008 5:51 PM:

Just an observation:

Jerry Falwell was babyfaced (more apparent in photos taken when he was younger, his nose seemed to grow with age)
Pat Robertson is babyfaced (again, see photos when he was younger, he seems to be ageing out of it)
Rush Limbaugh is babyfaced.

I've always thought the three of them looked like mean little boys in grownup bodies.

I can't think of any prominent liberal/progressive political or religious figures who are babyfaced.

Any studies out there that show a correlation between being babyfaced and being a right-wing hatemonger?

Joey said at December 7, 2008 12:21 AM:

Well, Leonardo DiCaprio is EXTREMELY babyfaced (to the point that I believe he has a testosterone deficiency), and he hawks for all these progressive causes (environment, voting, etc.).

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