Political pundits pill kilolitres of ink and terabytes of pixels on their election comments and analyses. In contrast, only a few blots of ink and pixels from science.

We like to think that our voting choices are primarily based on rational thinking, but they are greatly coloured by signals we receive at the subconscious level from politicians’ facial appearances.

Study after study supports the idea that we can make fairly accurate predictions about a person’s intelligence and ability to govern from the appearance of their face. Politicians who simply look more competent are more likely to win elections. It’s not competence as such but competence in appearance that influences our votes. “Looks matter” is not an abstract idea; though small it is measurable against other political factors such as jobs and immigration.

In a landmark study Princeton University psychologist Alexander Todorov and his colleagues showed pairs of portraits to about a thousand people and asked them to choose the person who looked more “competent”. The participants didn’t know that they were looking at the headshots of all the Democratic and Republican candidates in dozens of US Senate and House races.

The researchers then took the bold step of predicting the election outcome of each race based solely on candidates’ looks, and accurately predicted 72 per cent of the Senate and 67 per cent of House races. They also found that the effect of more competent look amounted to a vote swing of 13 per cent.

So, do try to look competent, dear candidates, even if you are not. This doesn’t imply that you start tweeting your best photos along with less flattering photos of your opponents, definitely not of the spouses à la Donald Trump.

But spruce up your faces and then appear more regularly in front of television cameras: a study by Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Gabriel Lenz and Chappell Lawson reveals that television markedly increases the effect of candidates’ looks among the less informed voters.

Our voting decisions are also in part driven by our first instinctive impressions of candidates. Even looking at photos of politicians for as little as one second, a snap judgment could identify winners and losers. These instant impressions can last all the way to the polling booth as people often stick to their first impressions.

At the polling booth, we can trick our minds in not making snap judgments by taking one simple step: wait a fraction of second before crossing out boxes on the ballot paper. Studies have found that it takes at least 120 milliseconds – the time it takes to double-click a mouse – for the brain to switch its attention from task to task. This may not seem like very much but this waiting enables the mind to focus on the most relevant information and avoid intuition-based decisions that are prone to all sorts of cognitive biases.

This fraction-of-a-second wait might also check our subconscious biases revealing themselves when we vote. We all know when we encounter explicit prejudices and discrimination, but we don’t know that we all harbour prejudices which we may even consciously loath. We may explicitly identify ourselves as unbiased but unconsciously we make lazy assumptions about people based on whether they are men or women, black or white, fat or skinny.

These hidden prejudices occur outside of our conscious awareness and control. We can easily suppress them if before entering the polling booth we are conscious that our votes are not tainted by negative stereotypes of age, disability, ethnicity, gender, nationality, race, religion, skin colour, social class, sexual orientation, and so on.  

Consciously or subconsciously, politicians want to be more likeable among voters. Here’s a tip: while on hustings they should hand out hot cups of coffee to the assembled voters. It would improve their likeability – and maybe electability – in a warm fuzzy way.

A few years ago Lawrence Williams, a psychologist at the University of Colorado, asked undergraduate students to hold their cups of coffee, either hot or iced, and then fill out a personality-impression questionnaire. In the questionnaire the students were asked to rate ten personality traits of a fictional person after reading a brief description of the person. The students weren’t aware that holding the cup was part of the experiment, but the effect was quite meaningful and astonishing. The students who held hot cups judged the fictional person to be “generous”, “caring” or “sociable” than those who held cold cups.

Body warmth seems to be associated with emotional warmth; but “generous and caring politicians” sounds like an oxymoron, even when we are holding hot cups of coffee.

How would we rate our politicians when we are holding cold cans of beer?

© Surendra Verma 2019

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