When you cast your ballot for president in November, something as simple as the candidate’s face could play a role in your decision.
Sound hard to believe?
A growing body of research supports the notion that a candidate’s attempts to establish himself as a powerful leader can be helped – or hurt – by his facial features. Appearance is not, of course, the sole factor that sways voters, but experts who have studied the link between faces and people’s perceptions say we place more emphasis on looks than we think.
Facial structure can play a role in how trustworthy, strong and charismatic we perceive someone to be, said Caroline Keating, a psychology professor at Colgate University who studies facial structure and perceptions of power.
Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama, the likely Republican and Democratic nominees, respectively, both have strong features that convey leadership, she said. But their faces may send different messages depending on the qualities most important to a voter.
A square jaw, prominent eyebrows, smaller eyes and thin lips are equated with dominance and strength. Round eyes and a weak chin can give someone a “baby face” and chip away at his power.
“One reason it’s so important for us to perceive our leaders as competent, credible and sincere is because that makes us feel secure,” Keating said. “We identify with leaders. If leaders look confident, brave, bold and true, then we feel we can take on the world.”
Keating has conducted research on people’s reactions to former presidents Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy. Using digital images, she made subtle, almost undetectable changes designed to enhance or diminish their facial features and tested reactions. Giving the youthful Kennedy a more mature appearance made him appear more cunning, while people thought the already-mature Reagan’s power diminished with added wrinkles.
Reagan and Kennedy had faces that conveyed power but also caring, which are ideal features for presidential candidates, she said.
Researchers say candidates need more than just strong facial features to win an election.
Choosing a presidential candidate is a personal and emotional decision that can be driven by several factors, including a person’s priorities, financial situation and outlook.
For Phoenix resident Mary Beth Borkowski, facial features played no role in her choice for president, she said.
The 43-year-old eighth-grade English teacher is drawn to Obama because of his views on health care, the Iraq war and early-childhood education.
“For me, it’s totally substance,” she said.
Even so, appearances can play a role. In the first-ever televised presidential debate – the 1960 matchup between Sen. John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Vice President Richard Nixon – viewers perceived Kennedy as the winner after Nixon showed up pale and sickly with a 5 o’clock shadow. Kennedy, by contrast, looked tan and well rested.
Those who listened to the debate on radio, however, declared Nixon the winner.
Studies since then have shown that facial features can have some influence, but how much and with whom is unclear. People rely on faces to give them social clues about a person and many believe they can judge character by looking at someone’s face, according to a 2000 study by two New York University researchers in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
McCain has a square face and pronounced jowls, features that have been associated with perceived dominance when shown to people in both Western and non-Western cultures, Keating’s research has shown. His close-set eyes give him an aggressive look when he knits his brows together.
McCain’s facial scars, wrinkles and receded, silver hairline give the 71-year-old the appearance of masculinity and seniority, an aura of “been there, done that,” she said.
Voters who are concerned mostly with national security issues could be drawn to him because of his mature features, she said.
“People who are less confident will be worried about him imposing old solutions to new problems, and for that they will be looking for someone who looks different,” she said.
In that case, they may be drawn to Obama, she said, who as a mixed-race man may appeal to people who want a new way of thinking about problems.
Obama’s strengths include a square jaw, narrow eyes, and prominent brow and nose. His brown eyes and full lips lend a feeling of warmth, she said.
Voters who are concerned mostly with the economy and health care may be drawn to Obama’s face because his warm eyes and smile conveys caring, she said.
His oblong-shaped face gives him a mature look, and his well-defined cheekbones suggest an aristocratic air.
“He looks like more of a strategist than a fighter,” she said.
Obama’s prominent ears could work for or against him, Keating said. They give him a boyish look, making him seem approachable and fun. Voters who mainly are looking for strength could view his boyish ears as a negative.
There is evidence that people can often predict the election winners just by looking at faces.
Alexander Todorov, an assistant professor of psychology at Princeton University, gave people photos of unfamiliar political candidates who won and were runners-up in state governor races. He asked people to pick the most competent candidates, and they chose the winners 68 percent of the time.
Whether this reliance on snap judgments is good or bad is hard to tell, Keating said.
“What’s the job of a leader? It’s to move us,” she said. “If you don’t look sincere, then you’re never going to move anybody. You’re not going to instill in them the confidence and the emotional tenor you need to get them to sign onto the programs you think are important. So when it comes to motivating people, it’s all about the nonverbal.”