Greg Roach's Berkshires Blog
Tuesday, October 23, 2007
  Proud Uncle Moment

I was listening to NPR today and they briefly chatted up a study about images of actual candidates for various offices being flashed on screen for a fraction of a second and having students predict the winner.

That sounded like the research that my nephew, Chas Ballew, did for his senior thesis two years ago at Princeton. I just checked and, indeed, Chas is the co-author of the study:

"Todorov and Charles Ballew, an undergraduate psychology major who graduated from Princeton in 2006, conducted three experiments in which several dozen participants had to make snap judgments about faces. Participants were shown a series of photos, each containing a pair of faces, and asked to choose, based purely on gut feeling, which face they felt displayed more competence. The differences among the experiments largely concerned the amounts of time an observer was allowed to view the faces -- as brief as a tenth of a second or longer -- and to pass judgment afterward.

What was unknown to the participants in the third experiment was that the image pairs were actually the photographs of the two frontrunner candidates for a major election being held somewhere in the United States during the time of the experiment in late 2006. The races were either for state governor or for a seat in the U.S. Senate. In cases where an observer recognized either of the two faces, the researchers removed the selection from the data.

Two weeks later elections were held, and the researchers compared the competency judgments with the election results. They found that the judgments predicted the winners in 72.4 percent of the senatorial races and 68.6 percent of the gubernatorial races.

"This means that with a quick look at two photos, you have a great chance of predicting who will win," Todorov said. "Voters are not that rational, after all. So maybe we have to consider that when we elect our politicians."
The study, with Chas listed as co-Author is presented in the October 22 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

What none of the various articles mention about Chas (when they mention him at all) is that he is a commissioned Lieutenant in the US Army, a second year law student at the University of Michigan and teaching fellow in Michigan's Psych Dept.

Not too shabby.
Interesting study. And anecdotal evidence (such as comparing the reaction of radio and TV audiences to the Nixon-JFK debate) tends to confirm that appearances can matter.

It could well be that "Voters are not that rational" in that they choose candidates based on the appearance of competence rather than actual competence.

Or it could be that people's appearance can actually give some insight into competence, intelligence, forcefulness or some other mental or personality traits. Certainly this is true in extreme cases, such as Downs syndrome for a genetic example, or hideous hairstyle and shaving choices for a cultural example.

Granted, only the latter is likely to come up in an election, but I don't think we can presume that appearance is not linked to competence, as this study appears to do. Also, while the study excluded cases where the viewer knew that he recognized a candidate, cases of sub- or semiconscious recognition might have been more common, and not corrected for.

Finally, going back to my anecdote, Nixon's failure to shave again and use TV makeup prior to debate, did demonstrate his relative lack of competence in his ability to market himself. So image cannot be divorced from substance.
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