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Politically Irrational

published October 2012
Subliminal influences guide our voting preferences
magazine cover

WITH THE 2012 PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION looming on the horizon in November, consider these two crucial questions: Who looks more competent, Barack Obama or Mitt Romney? Who has the deepest and most resonant voice? Maybe your answer is, “Who cares? I vote for candidates based on their policies and positions, not on how they look and sound!” If so, that very likely is your rational brain justifying an earlier choice that your emotional brain made based on these seemingly shallow criteria.

Before the election, I urge you to read Leonard Mlodinow’s new book, Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior (Pantheon). You will gain insights such as that higherpitched voices are judged by subjects as more nervous and less truthful and empathetic than speakers with lower-pitched voices, and that speaking a little faster and louder and with fewer pauses and greater variation in volume leads people to judge someone to be energetic, intelligent and knowledgeable. Looks matter even more. One study presented subjects with campaign flyers featuring black-and-white photographs of models posing as Democrats or Republicans in fictional congressional races; half looked able and competent, whereas the other half did not, as rated by volunteers before the experiment. The flyers included the candidate’s name, party a!liation, education, occupation, political experience and three position statements. To control for party preference, half the subjects were shown the more suitablelooking candidate as a Democrat, and the other half saw him as a Republican. Results: 59 percent of the vote went to the candidate with the more capable appearance regardless of other qualifications. A similar study in a mock election resulted in a 15-percentage- point advantage for the more authoritative-looking politician.

To test these e”ects in real elections, Princeton University psychologist Alexander Todorov and his colleagues had volunteers rate for “competence” black-and-white head shots of all the candidates in 600 contests for the U.S. House of Representatives and 95 races for the Senate from 2000, 2002 and 2004. Results: candidates rated as more competent won 67 percent of the House races and 72 percent of the Senate ones. In a followup study published in 2007 the psychologists conducted the face-evaluation process before the 2006 elections, predicting the winners in 72 percent of Senate runs and 69 percent of gubernatorial competitions based on the candidates’ appearances alone.

These data—and others—confirm what was perceived the night of September 26, 1960, during the first televised presidential debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon. Well-rested, and tan from campaigning in California, Kennedy was radiant, like an “athlete come to receive his wreath of laurel,” journalist Howard K. Smith noted. In contrast, Nixon had been campaigning right up to the debate and had been hospitalized for a knee infection that had left him with a 102-degree fever and looking pale and haggard, worsened by his notoriously heavy five o’clock shadow. Seventy million people watched the event. Millions more listened on the radio. According to a study published in the trade journal Broadcasting, those who saw the debate thought Kennedy won, whereas those who heard it gave Nixon the nod. For example, when then New York Herald Tribune writer Earl Mazo first observed reactions to the debate at a conference, he observed, “Nixon was best on radio simply because his deep, resonant voice conveyed more conviction, command, and determination than Kennedy’s higher-pitched voice and his Boston-Harvard accent. But on television, Kennedy looked sharper, more in control, more firm.” These conclusions were replicated in a 2003 study in which subjects who viewed the debate were more likely to think Kennedy won than those who listened to it.

Why are we so influenced by such apparently trivial characteristics as voice and looks? In our evolutionary past they served as proxies for health, vigor and overall fitness (in both the physical and evolutionary sense). Such cognitive shortcuts are remain necessary today because in a world abuzz with information overload, it isn’t possible to rationally analyze all incoming data. So, on Election Day, try to override your predictably irrational propensity to succumb to these influences and engage your rational brain to vote the issues and not the person.

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7 Comments to “Politically Irrational”

  1. Bad Boy Scientist Says:

    Dr Mike brings up something that is completely true: we don’t make decisions about who we vote for rationally – in fact,we don’t make _most_ decisions in a rational manner. (This is why I harbor suspicions about economic theories based on rational actor models).

    But I say, “So what? How many of us have sufficient knowledge of international politics and access to enough information that we can really decide which candidate’s policies would be better?” (Fill in your favorite political hot-button issue).

    The ugly truth about rational (AKA critical) thinking is this: It’s not the thinking that is difficult – it’s learning everything you need to know before you can think that’s the killer.

  2. Dr. James Says:

    Like the good Dr. Shermer, I also strongly recommend this month’s Scientific American, an issue dedicated to some of the latest research in the sometimes scary world of neuroscience. I am but one of a growing horde of people who believe we are on the verge of a Copernican-level revolution in our understanding of the totality of human behavior, only a tiny bit of which is the influence of our LEARNED emotions and how that part of the brain impacts the cognitive and behavioral parts. Those who just don’t get it, or more commonly, refuse to believe it, will be left as victims on the historical landscape. Ignorance in any form is always dangerous.

  3. Chris Benson Says:

    While I believe that most if not all voters make their decision irrationally based on looks, sound of voice, etc., I wish we didn’t. So I disagree with Bad Boy’s “So what?”

    I don’t need a vast knowledge of international politics, etc., to care whether a candidate wants to raise or lower my taxes, foster or hinder foreign trade, protect or privatize Social Security, increase or decrease military spending, promote or repeal health care programs, or dink with peoples private lives regarding marriage rights or birth control.

    I personally wish there was a minimal competency test for voters, but then again, I just finished a 700 page book on the Federal Reserve, and I’m still not sure what to believe about quantitative easing.

    And on a slightly unrelated note, may little-g god help the first openly atheist candidate.

  4. Hypatia Says:

    I have read studies lately that question the “radio vs TV” theory on the Nixon-Kennedy debate. Since I didn’t hear the radio, and don’t remember well the TV, I don’t have a dog in this fight.

    But I do suggest that this orthodoxy be revisited, perhaps with better research tools.

  5. Janice Glass Says:

    Just saw the theory tested in the Debate! Romney looked better, voice commanding,ran all over J.L.(terrible moderator) but the electorate will be fooled. Mitt lied & changed his position yet again! I agree with this article.

  6. Ilene King Says:

    I think the studies cited tell us more about the make-up of the electorate as a whole – that there are many uniformed, uncommitted, undecided voters who base their decisions on irrational criteria – than they do about how informed, committed voters decide. I don’t disagree that we make many decisions irrationally, but I doubt that the majority of well informed or politically committed voters decide for whom they will vote based on looks, voice, etc., and I don’t agree that the studies cited actually tell us anything about how such voters decide. For the results of this study to translate in to how informed, committed voter decide, I would want to see a breakdown in the results among informed voters, committed voters and undecided voters. I suspect that if the uniformed, uncommitted, undecided voters were separated out there would be a different result. I would posit that the majority of well informed voters vote based on issues; the majority of politically committed voters vote based on party or other group identification; and only a majority of uniformed, uncommitted, or undecided voters vote based on such irrational criteria as looks and voice. That a majority of electoral outcomes can be predicted by looks only tells us that there are enough voters who decide on this basis to sway a majority of elections – it does not tell us how many or who the voters are who are deciding on that basis.

  7. miel frenkel Says:

    I think personality and appearance is very important in an election such as for president of the U.S.A. and should not be disregarded next to professed politics.

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