Tuesday, February 24, 2009

A Pretty Face: All you need to get elected...or become a sea captain.

Admittedly, I could be a smart alec when I was a kid. I distinctly remember the disdain I felt at 15 of having to wait another three years to be able to vote. I felt it was ridiculous to discriminate who got to vote and who didn't based on an arbitrary age when it would make more sense to subject all potential voters to a test and eliminate voters based on some qualification that I felt I probably had.

Turns out I may have been right that children should have the right to vote but for the wrong reasons. Although I thought many teens and even some children had sufficient mental faculties to vote, it may be that adults tend to use the same methods to pick their candidates that children do.

John Antonakis and Olaf Dalgas report, in the February 27, 2009 issue of Science that all it takes to be successful in politics in an appealing face, a quality which children and adults appreciate in the same way.

Swiss participants were shown sets of two photos of candidates from past French elections (with which the participants were not familiar) and were asked to pick the photo with the most competent candidate in each set. Basing their notion of competence on a photo alone, the participants managed to pick the winning candidate most of the time suggesting appearances can play a big role in what we think of a politician.

The same sets of photos were shown to children who had just played a game recreating a Mediterranean sea voyage. When asked to pick which of the two photos they would prefer as their captain, not only did the children pick the winner most of the time, their choices were statistically the same as the adults' choices. This leads the researchers to speculate that children and adults use the same criteria to assess leadership ability in facial appearances.

Of course, it would be foolish to think that appearances are all that matter. Everyone old enough to have weathered a couple of elections can no doubt recall a time when a particularly savvy remark or gruesome gaffe either won or lost an election. Even beyond that, there are party affiliations that don't seem to vary even when the candidates representing different parties change from election to election.

What this research does suggest is that first impressions based on appearances can be difficult to change even when we have information more relevant to making our decision. Since I can't foresee elections where voters are deprived of photos of the candidates, we should all just try to be sure whomever we support politically is more than just a pretty face.

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