So That's Why That Clown Was Elected

Hot on the heels of a controversial book arguing that voters choose a candidate based on how he or she makes them feel—issues and position papers be damned—comes a study that’s enough to make you yearn for the good old days of monarchy: by measuring people’s unconscious judgments of an unfamiliar face, you can predict the outcome of elections 70 percent of the time.

Princeton psychologist Alexander Todorov and his student showed several dozen volunteers pairs of photos of unfamiliar faces, and asked them to choose, based on gut feelings alone, who was probably more competent. His earlier research had shown that people make judgments about someone’s trustworthiness, competence, aggressiveness and other traits in a mere one-tenth of a second. Now, in a study published online Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, he goes one depressing step further: these lightning-quick facial judgments can accurately predict real-world election results.

This time, in a study done two weeks before the 2006 elections, the pairs of photos were (unbeknownst to the participants) of the two frontrunners in either a gubernatorial or a U.S. senate race. (If a participant recognized either of the two faces, that pair didn't count.) “We never told our test subjects they were looking at candidates for political office. We only asked them to make a gut reaction response as to which unfamiliar face appeared more competent,” said Todorov.

When election night '06 arrived, the scientists compared the competency judgments with the results from the ballot box. The judgments predicted the winners in 72 percent of the senate races and 69 percent of the gubernatorial races. “This means that with a quick look at two photos, you have a great chance of predicting who will win,” Todorov said. “Voters are not that rational, after all.”

The assessment of competence doesn’t seem to be culture-specific. Other research, by political scientist Chappell Lawson of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, finds that Americans can predict the outcome of elections in Mexico based on the same gut reactions. “Our findings surprised us, because Mexican politicians often emphasize very different aspects of their appearance, such as facial hair, which American political figures avoid,” said Lawson. “But Americans could still pick out the Mexican winners.”

What’s not clear is how this works when the faces you’re assessing are not anonymous, but those of pols you know. In that case, the assessment of competence—even when it’s made in one-tenth of a second—is likely (hopefully?) affected by what you know about the candidate. If so, then simply scanning the line of faces at the next presidential debate and deciding who looks most competent might not necessarily serve as a crystal ball for November ’08.