A baby face forecasts election outcomes

Despite the age-old admonition not to “judge a book by its cover,” we routinely make important judgments about human traits based on instant, superficial impressions of peoples’ faces. Such “blink of an eye” decision-making predicted the outcome of about 70 percent of recent U.S. Senate races, according to a new study in Science this week.

According to the study, candidates who looked “competent” prevailed in congressional elections more than two-thirds of the time. In a review of the study, Dr. Leslie Zebrowitz, a psychologist at Brandeis University, and Joann M. Montepare, explain that the outcomes of the political races were likely due to differences in the opponents’ “babyfacedness.”

“Although the study doesn’t tell us exactly what competence is – there are many kinds, including physical strength, social dominance and intellectual shrewdness – babyfaced people are perceived to be lacking in all these qualities,” said Zebrowitz, a pioneering research scientist in the field of facial impressions and author of “Reading Faces: Window to the Soul?”

What facial qualities make someone look more babyfaced and less competent? Zebrowitz says that both babies and babyfaced adults, regardless of sex or ethnicity, share such features as a round face, large eyes, small nose, high forehead and small chin. Competency, on the other hand, is associated with facial maturity.

“The association between facial maturity and perceived competence is ubiquitous: babyfaced individuals within various demographic groups are perceived as less competent…Its impact can be seen even for famous politicians: in another study, when images of U.S presidents Reagan and Kennedy were morphed to increase babyfacedness, their perceived dominance, strength and cunning decreased significantly,” writes Zebrowitz in the magazine’s “Perspectives” column.

She says that the evolutionary importance of detecting attributes such as emotion, age and health is probably responsible for our strong tendency to respond to facial qualities that reveal these characteristics. With this built-in predisposition, we tend to overgeneralize facial impressions to adults whose faces, in this case, merely resemble a baby’s in certain features. The result: we often conclude that babyfaced adults are naïve, submissive and weak.

In fact, studies by Zebrowitz and others have shown that babyfaced men are actually more intelligent, better educated, more assertive and apt to win more military medals than their mature-looking counterparts.

Research in the area of facial impressions has implications for political marketing, social decision-making and even the democratic process, Zebrowitz believes. “The data we have suggest that we’re not necessarily electing better leaders – people who are actually more competent, though we are electing people who look the part.”

In the Science article, Zebrowitz calls for better understanding of appearance biases as a first step toward identifying electoral reforms that could increase the chances of electing leaders qualified by skill and experience, rather than appearance.

From Brandeis University

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