October 29, 2008
Brain Scans Of Reactions To Faces Predict Election Winners

You might believe you have very sophisticated reasons for favoring one political candidate or the other. And that might even be true. But did those sophisticated reasons precede or follow your brain's reaction to the faces of the candidates? Brain scans of people viewing photos unknown politicians (and even their stated reactions to the pictures) can predict election outcomes.

PASADENA, Calif.-- Brain-imaging studies reveal that voting decisions are more associated with the brain's response to negative aspects of a politician's appearance than to positive ones, says a team of researchers from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), Scripps College, Princeton University, and the University of Iowa. This appears to be particularly true when voters have little or no information about a politician aside from their physical appearance.

The research was published online in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience (http://scan.oxfordjournals.org) on October 28.

In general elections some vote the straight party ticket. So their assessments of faces do not matter. But even the consistent partisan voters evaluate ideologically similar candidates in primaries (at least in electoral systems that have primaries). In those primaries the partisans probably vote on appearances just as the middle-of-the-roaders do in general elections.

You do not even need brain scans to predict election outcomes. Just show people pictures for a tenth of a second. We do not need to suffer thru listening to political commentators babbling for months. We can get the same results in seconds.

Using a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner at the Caltech Brain Imaging Center, the researchers obtained high-resolution images of brain activation as volunteers made decisions about politicians based solely on their pictures.

The researchers conducted two independent studies using different groups of volunteers viewing the images of different politicians. Volunteers were shown pairs of photos, each with a politician coupled with their opponent in a real election in 2002, 2004, or 2006. Importantly, none of the study subjects were familiar with the politicians whose images they viewed.

In some experiments, the volunteers had to make character-trait judgments about the politicians--for example, which of the two politicians in the pair looked more competent to hold congressional office, or which looked more likely to physically threaten the volunteer. In other experiments, volunteers were asked to cast their vote for one politician in the pair; once again, their decisions were based only on the politicians' appearances.

The results correlated with actual election outcomes. For example, politicians who were thought to look the most physically threatening in the experiment were more likely to have actually lost their elections in real life. The correlation held true even when volunteers saw the politicians' pictures for less than one tenth of a second.

Importantly, the pictures of politicians who lost elections, both in the lab and in the real world, were associated with greater activation in key brain areas known to be important for processing emotion. This was true when volunteers simply voted and also when they closely examined the politicians' pictures for character traits. The studies suggest that negative evaluations based only on a politician's appearance have some effect on real election outcomes--and, specifically, may influence which candidate will lose an election. This influence appears to be more uniform than the influence exerted by positive evaluations based on appearance.

But we'll keep on having elections because most people don't want to admit they are using appearances to choose leaders.

My question: How accurate are people at reading character in faces? Do the politicians with more threatening faces really govern worse once in office? Do they have different personality types compared to those with less threatening faces?

Share |      Randall Parker, 2008 October 29 09:08 PM  Brain Society

Ian said at October 30, 2008 10:35 AM:

"But we'll keep on having elections because most people don't want to admit they are using appearances to choose leaders."

What do you suggest as the alternative(s) to elections?

Randall Parker said at November 1, 2008 12:19 PM:


We could develop a facial scanning algorithm that chooses the candidate that people would choose if they went into the voting booth. Of course people would doubt the accuracy of the software. So then we could have all primary voters sit down and get their brains scanned as they looked at all the candidates. Then we'd only have to have people show up for primary voting. Though the brain scanning would be expensive.

Probably we could come up with a method that is cheaper than brain scanning to measure real human reactions to faces.

Bob Jenkins said at November 5, 2008 11:19 AM:

"Every man over 40 is responsible for his face." - Abraham Lincoln

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