On September 26, 1960, Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy squared off in the first presidential debate to be aired on television in history. While it was an exciting moment for technology, it’s most remembered as an example of the fact that, when it comes to politics, appearances matter.
“I was listening to it on the radio coming into Lincoln, Kansas, and I thought Nixon was doing a great job,” former Sen. Bob Dole recalled in a PBS interview. “Then I saw the TV clips the next morning, and he … didn’t look well. Kennedy was young and articulate and … wiped him out.”
But, according to new research, it probably wasn’t just Kennedy’s boyish good looks and well-fitted suit that got him a lead in the running; it was the width of his face.
In a study whose findings were published this week in Psychological Science, Caltech researches conducted several experiments that suggest people can often predict a male politician’s trustworthiness simply by looking at him.
In one experiment, 100 volunteers were presented with 72 photos of white male politicians, half of whom had been convicted of corruption, and found that they were able to identify which ones had clean records versus which ones did not 70 percent of the time—despite having no other previous knowledge of them.
The researchers closely studied the facial traits of all of the politicians in order to determine the source of this disparity, and discovered that politicians with higher facial-width ratios were more likely to be perceived as corruptible.
To confirm that this was really the cause, they gathered photos of 150 politicians and altered their faces to seem wider or more narrow. The 450 resulting photos were shown to volunteers and, once again, those who had wider facial features were deemed more corruptible.
The researchers might actually be onto something, however, since previous studies indicate that men who have wider faces generate more testosterone and are more prone to aggressive behavior, and are therefore also subconsciously perceived as more threatening.
The researchers note that you should by no means take the study as a sign that you should automatically disqualify a political candidate on the basis of his or her appearance. But it’s a good perception bias to keep in mind as you head to the polls.
“It might be difficult to understand why you can look at others’ faces and tell something about them,” Chujun Lin, a Caltech graduate student and co-author of the study, said in a university newsletter. “But there is no doubt that people form first impressions from faces all the time. For example, on dating sites people often reject potential matches based on pictures without reading the profile.”
For more on that, see Why Women Are Attracted to Square-Jawed Men.
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