Do Candidates’ Faces Influence Voters’ Preferences?
Some people have stable and strong political preferences and vote for the same party and their candidates in every election. Other people have more flexible political views and switch between parties from election to election depending on ongoing political debates. In a majority election system as in the U.S. presidential election, states with a lot of swing voters are crucial for winning the race for the White House. Accordingly, parties spend a great deal of money and effort on political contests with a lot of swing voters. In an ideal world, the party and candidate with the most convincing political ideas would ultimately win the election.
Facial Features Influence Voters' Decisions
Studies from psychologists show, however, that winning elections is not only about which candidate has the better political argument but also, especially in close electoral races, who has the best looks.
In a series of three studies, my colleague Michaela Wänke and I showed that large eyes, a wide mouth, and to a lesser extent small eyebrows increase the likelihood that political candidates receive votes. We first had 27 European adults rate the electability of 20 unknown female and 20 unknown male facial images. Of 17 facial characteristics, subjective electability judgments were related only to large eyes, a wide mouth, and small eyebrows.
We then conducted an experiment involving 396 adults from the U.S. We varied eye size, mouth width, and eyebrow height in four female and four male faces. Participants picked their favorite "candidate" in a hypothetical election from among these eight faces. Consistent with our survey results, participants' votes were influenced by eye size, mouth width, and eyebrow height.
In a third study, we analyzed the votes for individual candidates in each electoral district of the 2009 German Federal election. We analyzed facial photographs of 1,458 candidates and found that candidates with big eyes and a wide mouth receive more votes than opponents with small eyes and a narrow mouth. The difference was just a few percentage points, so eye and mouth sizes will not change the outcome of a race with a clear winner. However, these facial characteristics could change the outcome in close electoral races. In contrast to our first two studies where we found that small eyebrows could boost political candidates in hypothetical voting scenarios, eyebrows mattered less than the eyes and the mouth in these real elections.
Why do candidates with big eyes and a wide mouth receive more votes? People tend to find other people with larger eyes and a wider mouth more trustworthy—a characteristic highly valued in politicians. But why are large eyes and a wide mouth perceived as trustworthy? Evolutionary accounts of face perception suggest that large eyes are a childlike characteristic (i.e., babies have disproportionately large eyes) that signals trustworthiness. A wide mouth looks like a smile, which signals that the other person is cooperative and in this sense trustworthy.
Take Back Control of Your Voting Decisions!
Our studies align with the findings of several other researchers in showing that voters' preferences are affected by the candidates' facial appearance. In a digital world where visual information is omnipresent and almost always within reach, these effects may grow in importance in future elections.
Our findings might tempt politicians to digitally edit the photos they use for their campaigns. In fact, this is already common practice in political campaigns. More importantly, we want to alert voters that this bias might affect their votes. Psychological research indicates that it is hard to ignore the effects of subtle visual cues. We think that one advantage of our findings is that we identified concrete facial characteristics voters can consciously choose to disregard in their voting decisions.
Especially in head-to-head races where candidates differ substantially in the size of their eyes and/or the width of their mouth, our findings could help voters to become skeptical of their gut-level tendency to vote for one or the other candidate and to deliberately move their attention from faces to more diagnostic voting criteria. In this sense, we hope that our research motivates voters to reflect on the reasons underlying their voting decisions. Relying on a politician's facial appearance is not the optimal basis for voting choices. Attending to their policies would be wiser.
For Further Reading
Landwehr, J. R., & Wänke, M. (2023). Face-to-face: Three facial features that may turn the scale in close electoral races. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 108, 104488. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2023.104488
Antonakis, J., & Dalgas, O. (2009). Predicting elections: Child's play! Science, 323(5918), 1183. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1167748
Little, A. C., Burris, R. P., Jones, B. C., & Roberts, S. C. (2007). Facial appearance affects voting decisions. Evolution and Human Behavior, 28(1), 18–27. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2006.09.002
Todorov, A., Mandisodza, A. N., Goren, A., & Hall, C. C. (2005). Inferences of competence from faces predict election outcomes. Science, 308(5728), 1623–1626. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1110589
Jan R. Landwehr is Professor of Market and Consumer Psychology at Goethe University Frankfurt, Germany. He studies how visual perception influences consumer behavior.