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Scientists Search for that Winning Look

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Scientists Search for that Winning Look

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Scientists Search for that Winning Look

Scientists Search for that Winning Look

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Forget political polls. Scientists usually can tell whether political candidates will win or lose by testing voters' reactions to the contestants' faces. A study in the journal Science shows that voters chose the face that looks more "competent."


Here's a shocker from the world of science. New research shows that voters prefer political candidates who look competent even if they're not. Our political neuroscience correspondent Jon Hamilton has the story.

JON HAMILTON reporting:

People often say they want political leaders who are honest, conscientious, likeable. But Alexander Todorov, a psychologist at Princeton, wanted to know what traits really mattered to voters.

Mr. ALEXANDER TODOROV (Psychologist, Princeton University): So we measured the impressions on all of these traits, and we measured, of course, attractiveness. And none of this made a big difference. I mean, the actual predictor of the election was competence.

HAMILTON: Well, actually it was the appearance of competence. The only thing the 800 people in the study saw were black-and-white pictures of the candidates. They didn't get any facts. And Todorov says anyone who actually recognized a politician was disqualified.

Mr. TODOROV: The idea is that this impression is entirely, completely based only on facial appearance.

HAMILTON: Todorov says when people weren't burdened by things like facts, they made a choice pretty fast.

Mr. TODOROV: One-second exposure to the two faces is sufficient to form the inference.

HAMILTON: And those inferences are powerful. The study found that since 2000, the House and Senate candidates who looked more competent won about 70 percent of the time. The results appear in this week's issue of the journal Science. Leslie Zebrowitz is a professor of psychology at Brandeis University in Massachusetts. She says the competent candidates tended to have stronger chins and longer noses. So what about the face of an incompetent loser?

Professor LESLIE ZEBROWITZ (Brandeis University): It's a rounder face, bigger eyes, a smaller nose bridge, a shorter chin.

HAMILTON: Zebrowitz, who wrote a book called "Reading Faces," says people tend to associate a mature face with competence. A baby face signals honesty and naivete. But Zebrowitz observes that both Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy became presidents, even though one had a baby face and the other didn't.

Prof. ZEBROWITZ: Well, Kennedy, just for one example, has bigger eyes than Reagan. That would be one striking feature that differentiates them; that might make Kennedy look more baby-faced. I think Kennedy also has fuller lips. Babies, from nursing, end up with puffy lips, and adults with fuller lips look more baby-faced.

HAMILTON: Zebrowitz says we may be genetically programmed to recognize babylike facial features. We may associate them with the traits of an immature person. She says that's a problem when we're assessing adults running for office.

Prof. ZEBROWITZ: It is superficial, and, in addition, there's no reason to think that it's accurate.

HAMILTON: Fortunately, well-informed Americans take far more than a facial impression with them into the voting booths--or maybe not. Alexander Todorov says he was worried he would have to disqualify a lot of people from his study because they'd recognize a politician's face. After all, his volunteers were students at Princeton University in New Jersey. As it turned out, Todorov says, recognition wasn't a problem.

Mr. TODOROV: I was absolutely surprised. I mean, it's amazing. I mean, we will show them the senators from New Jersey, and very few people will have a clue. I mean, it was amazing. I mean, it was quite stunning actually.

HAMILTON: Most of the students didn't even recognize well-known politicians. Todorov says fewer than a third recognized Illinois Senator Barack Obama. Fewer than one in 10 knew Senator Edward Kennedy from Massachusetts. Jon Hamilton, NPR News, Washington.

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