“Inferences of competence from faces”

Looking away from the feisty conservatives to the opposite side of the political campground, consider Corey Robin’s tweet:

Physical attractiveness is a charged topic. The ancients thought it was part of the social order, dividing elite from commoner. In the modern world, outside of racism and critical/feminist theories of race/gender, it’s not part of political thought. Why?

Both attractiveness and unattractiveness, I would add, and not purely physical. People may hate or admire a politician’s clothes or her spoken intonation on grounds that seem completely idiosyncratic and removed from matters of class, gender or race/ethnicity. Based on my personal physiognomy – naive but deeply rooted – I could never understand how people could enthusiastically support George W. Bush against Al Gore, or Vladimir Putin against anyone.

Physiognomy is an ancient pseudoscience, and a good deal of it is pretty blatantly racist. It could probably be made less Eurocentric but hardly more scientific: can you seriously expect to judge one’s intellect or character by studying one’s face in great detail? That sounds about as serious as good old Phrenology. However, perceptions of intelligence or goodness based on one’s appearance can and should be studied.

There’s a rather short list of related articles in this June 2008 article, Predicting Elections from Politicians’ Faces. Three titles stand out as particularly relevant:

Todorov, Alexander, Anesu N. Mandisodza, Amir Gorem & Crystal C. Hall (2005), “Inferences of competence from faces predict election outcomes,” Science, 308, June 10, 1623-1626.

Nixon, Becky & Sarah Pollom (2006), “Effects of facial maturity on voting preference,” Hanover College Working Paper, PSY 401, Winter 2006.

Little, Anthony, C., Robert P. Burriss, Benedict, C. Jones & S. Craig Roberts (2007), “Facial appearance affects voting decisions”, Evolution and Human Behavior, 28, 18-27.

Accessible writeups of Todorov et al.’s work can be found here (Princeton) and here (the New Yorker). An introduction to Little et al.’s research was published in The Star (Toronto) in 2007.

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