Sunday, November 23, 2008

Politics as beauty contest

Perhaps interest in politics has dropped off a lot now that the U. S. elections are over (for this year). But there's still some interesting political science that came up before the big event.

Even though political scientists, year in and year out, are as busy publishing as any other kind, quite a number of research announcements were noted recently outside of traditional professional venues. That has tapered off now, but there were a number of items that seem to call for some comment here. So I'll do some of that despite what is bound to be a declining interest in the subject.

A perennial favorite of election-oriented political research centers around questions of how the appearance of a candidate affects electoral success. That's no different this year. Here's a fairly typical example:

A Pretty Face Can Make A Difference In Whom You Vote For (10/30/08)
According to new Northwestern University research, it is not at all surprising that everyone also is talking about the great looks of vice presidential hopeful Palin.

Whether or not you believe the McCain campaign's $150,000 expenditure for Palin's wardrobe and the much-talked-about salary of her makeup artist are over the top, the decision to play up the looks of the former beauty queen is a winning strategy.

Even in 2008, a perception of competence -- a strong predictor of whether people will vote for political candidates -- is not enough to give women the winning edge in political contests, according to the new Northwestern psychology study.

For both men and women, female political candidates needed to be seen as attractive as well as competent to get their votes. ...

While gender bias related to a female candidate's attractiveness was consistent across both male and female voters, good looks was almost all that mattered in predicting men's votes for female candidates. And, true to prevailing stereotypes, competence was almost all that mattered in predicting men's votes for male candidates.

The idea that good looks positively affects electoral success has been researched many times – as well as being often suspected by a lot of people who aren't professional – in all kinds of elections from student councils on up. I discussed one study on this in a post here almost 2 years ago.

The new research I want to examine here was not entirely, or even primarily, about the importance of attractiveness in winning elections. Instead, experimental participants were first asked to rate candidates independently, based on their photos, on four different attributes: "competence", "dominance", and "approachability", as well as "attractiveness".

The politicians in question were actually candidates in 2006 U. S. Congressional elections. The politicians' photos were then presented in pairs actually competing with each other. Experiment participants were asked to chose which of each pair they would vote for if the office were actually the U. S. presidency.

The resulting data were analyzed in various ways. First, in comparison of participants' voting choice to how they had rated the candidates on each of the four attributes. Second, in comparison of candidates' gender and facial appearance to actual Congressional election outcomes. And third, in comparison between how the candidates won or lost in the simulated presidential election and in the actual Congressional election.

Since I want to focus just on the attractiveness issue, I won't attempt to summarize all the results here. You can find the summary in the research paper itself (citation below). I'll mention only two specific observations: (1) "Female candidates were more likely to win votes if they were more attractive." (2) "Male voters were significantly more likely to vote for candidates that appeared attractive." (I presume these statements represent correlations between opinions of attractiveness and voting behavior of each experimental participant.)

Now, it may be true as the research asserts, that attractiveness matters more for female candidates, while a perceptions of "competence" is relatively more important for male candidates. However, the attractiveness of male candidates (especially in contests exclusively between two males) is a still a net positive.

There's another possibility that should be considered even when voters seem to make their voting choices based on judgment of "competence" of male (or female, for that matter) candidates. Namely, that "attractiveness" (perhaps in a form not consciously associated with the term) might bias this judgment. One has to wonder exactly what visual characteristics might signify "competence" to voters, and whether certain factors – such as a "strong jawbone" (for a male) – don't contribute simultaneously to judgments of both attractiveness and competence.

Humans are fairly sophisticated in making judgments about traits like "competence", since evaluations of other people's character and ability are important in deciding whom to trust. The ability to do this reliably has a lot of evolutionary importance. This doesn't mean people are infallible about such judgments – clearly they aren't. But people probably can do better than chance in making such judgments, at least when not faced with situations where the person being judged is skilled at faking appearances. Perhaps it's more a case of detecting lack of competence, as might be signaled by poorly managed facial expressions (e. g. simply looking perplexed or "stupid").

But judgments about good looks and attractiveness are even more natural. We make them all the time, hardly giving any thought to the matter. Research has shown that people tend to make judgments about facial attractiveness very quickly. (See here.) This suggests people tend to use simple heuristics that may well be hard-wired.

Research apparently shows that even babies prefer to stare at beautiful faces. Note, too, how illustrated children's literature (and now movies) usually portrays virtuous or heroic characters as beautiful or handsome, while evil or villainous characters are ugly, often very ugly, and much to be feared. So there may be an element of social conditioning here, at least for children beyond infancy.

An interesting observation in the report of the research just mentioned, about the quickness of making judgments, is that "It seems that pretty faces 'prime' our minds to make us more likely to associate the pretty face with a positive emotion." ("Priming" is a hot topic in current psychological research.) So, comparatively speaking, a face that isn't "pretty" would be associated with less positive emotions. That alone would be enough to influence voting choices, if "everything else" is assumed to be equal.

There are different possible factors that may enter into such a judgment. So let's consider further what factors and heuristics might be used in judging facial attractiveness. It would be quite interesting to know how the various factors about to be mentioned perhaps have different effects on political choice.

A small number of factors are often suggested. One of the oldest is that the property of "youthfulness" is associated with attractiveness. That makes plenty of evolutionary sense, as fertility, reproductive capacity, and ability to nurture children all decline with age after the beginning of adulthood. It should be noted that youthfulness should be especially salient in the judgment of young people – such as the experimental subjects (college students, average age 19.5) in the research under discussion

A more recent suggestion is that "symmetry" is important, as that would tend to indicate general healthiness. (Recent research here.) That makes sense, too, but does it have any reasonably apparent relevance to voting decisions?

"Symmetry" is probably a looser criterion than in an older and fairly well-known theory of attractiveness, often called simply the "averageness" hypothesis. This holds that average phenotypes in a population are judged more attractive than phenotypes with notably atypical features. An average value on a particular facial metric (such as width of nose or chin) is considered to be what is "normal", yet for most features all to be close to average might be fairly unusual.

So "averageness" is used in a somewhat special sense here – literally, as having size and proportion of most important facial features being close to the overall average. Probably faces that have "averageness" in this sense are fairly rare, which might add to the quality of "attractiveness". So "averageness" as a descriptor of faces is not the same as "common" or "ordinary" or "typical".

Since averages of many faces will wipe out most asymmetry (e. g. some part being off center), an averaged face will be symmetrical. So facial symmetry is a more common characteristic than averageness. A symmetrical face could still have features that are far from average values in size or position.

Since facial symmetry will be more common in a population than faces that have the property of averageness (in the special sense used here), averageness is a more stringent criterion for attractivness. Consequently, a voter who perceives one candidate's face as more attractive than the candidate's opponent is making a more significant discrimination, which could have higher weight in the final choice. Indeed, two candidates might have equally symmetrical faces, or at least faces that are difficult to distinguish in terms of symmetry, yet differ considerably in averageness and hence (perhaps) in attractiveness.

And so, to the extent that people actually judge attractiveness based on averageness rather than symmetry, it will be more likely that judgment affects a voting decision. In other words, we would expect on these general considerations that attractiveness is more likely to affect voting decisions if the criterion is actually "averageness".

There is some amount of research supporting the idea that averageness is the important criterion for attractiveness, such as findings that images created by averaging photographs of many individuals tend to receive higher ratings for attractiveness. So at least for the sake of discussion, let's assume there's some validity to this notion.

Deviations from averageness do not imply deviations from symmetry, so they would not be expected to have the stronger negative implications for overall health and (hence) fertility that asymmetry does, so there would be a smaller indication of "riskiness". It would therefore be harder to understand the evolutionary importance of judging the riskiness of another person based on attractiveness if averageness is the underlying consideration. Is it possible that averageness is important in judging riskiness for other evolutionary reasons – reasons that apply to evaluating others in more general contexts than the context of mate selection?

Yes, I think so. As I wrote in my previous post, "people who are considered attractive within a population are those who are most 'typical' or 'average'. Or inversely, least atypical, least different from the largest number of people in the population. People who are considered less attractive have facial features that vary a lot from the norm, such as lips that are too thin or too thick (compared to the average), eyes too far apart or too close together, eyebrows that are too sparse or too bushy."

The evolutionary rationale at work here is that people who appear too "different" from the norm are more likely to belong to a different, more genetically distant tribe. Such people are probably less likely to deserve trust, and might even be "dangerous".

I think this matter of perceived trustworthiness vs. potential "danger" in the eyes of voters could be rather important, especially if it is unconsciously inferred from perceptions of a candidate's attractiveness. I've written more on that here, not too long ago, so I won't repeat it now.

More generally, I see conscious and unconscious issues of fear and perceived danger as especially important factors in a voter's attitudes towards, and relationship with, government. This is because, as a matter of both philosophy and sociology, one of the primary reasons for the existence of governments is to "protect" citizens from a variety of potential evils, whether they be dishonest businesspeople, common criminals, foreign and domestic terrorists, or whatever. I've written a lot more about that here.

The question, then, is whether the research now under discussion supports the idea of a connection between fear and voting behavior, or is even relevant to it. To be honest, the relevance is somewhat tentative, since it relies on the idea that there is a negative correlation between the attractiveness of a political candidate and whether a voter feels fear associated with the candidate at some level. It would be very interesting to see more research that addresses this issue more directly.

Regarding the present research itself, I have a few reservations as well. For example, the experimental participants were university students of average age 19.5 years. Quite possibly many of the participants had never even voted in a governmental election, and they certainly did not have a few decades of adult experience – with politicians, elections, and actual government performance – that could shape and inform their voting decisions. It's not surprising that individuals with little adult experience would base decisions on appearance factors.

Aside from that, there's also the question of whether the socioeconomic demographics of university students would skew the results from what would be found in the electorate as a whole. And then there's the whole other issue of possibly relevant cultural differences between the U. S. and other democratic countries.

So there's reason to suspect that typical, experienced voters, even in the U. S., might produce rather different results in a similar sort of experiment.

Here's the research paper, with some of the abstract:

The Political Gender Gap: Gender Bias in Facial Inferences that Predict Voting Behavior
Contrary to the notion that people use deliberate, rational strategies when deciding whom to vote for in major political elections, research indicates that people use shallow decision heuristics, such as impressions of competence solely from a candidate's facial appearance, when deciding whom to vote for. Because gender has previously been shown to affect a number of inferences made from the face, here we investigated the hypothesis that gender of both voter and candidate affects the kinds of facial impressions that predict voting behavior.




ResearchBlogging.org
Joan Y. Chiao, Nicholas E. Bowman, Harleen Gill (2008). The Political Gender Gap: Gender Bias in Facial Inferences that Predict Voting Behavior PLoS ONE, 3 (10) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0003666


Update on 11/24/08: I have extensively reworked the discussion about "attractiveness" and its relationship to "symmetry" and "averageness". One would like to see more experimental evidence to sort out these factors in general and specifically as to how they affect voting choice.

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