After seeing a candidate for 100 milliseconds, voters make certain sorts of judgments based on expressiveness, facial structure, carriage and attitude. Alexander Todorov of Princeton has found that he can predict 70 percent of political races just by measuring peoples’ snap judgments of candidates’ faces.
Then, having formed an impression from these thin-slice appraisals, voters rack their memory banks. Decades ago, Kahneman and Amos Tversky argued that human judgment is less a matter of calculating probabilities and more a matter of trying to fit new things into familiar patterns. Maybe John Edwards reminds one voter of the sort of person he disliked in high school. Maybe Barack Obama evokes the elevated feeling another voter felt watching John F. Kennedy.
It is no accident that the major candidates in the Republican field are a pastor, a businessman and a war hero. These are the three most evocative Republican leadership models. Nor is it an accident that the Democratic race is a clash between a daughter of the feminist movement, a beneficiary of the civil rights movement and a self-styled proletarian. These are powerful Democratic categories.
In making these associations, voters are trying to perform trait inference. They are trying to divine inner abilities from outward signs.
At the same time, voters embark on an emotional journey with candidates. Antonio Damasio and Joseph LeDoux have shown that emotion isn’t the opposite of reason. We use emotion to assign value to things, thus making decision-making possible.
As the campaign drags on, voters see candidates at different events. Maybe at one event Mitt Romney smiled without dipping the outer edge of his eyebrows. This is a cue that the smile is fake, and produces distrust. On the other hand, maybe he vowed to bring all the manufacturing jobs back to Michigan. A voter might have known this was impossible, but appreciated the concern nonetheless.
As the months go on, emotions oscillate and voter preferences do, too. Voters listen to policy proposals and infer character traits. A social contagion like Obamamania might sweep the country. A global shock might set off a wave of fear, producing a powerful intellectual cascade.
Ballew, C. C., & Todorov, A. (2007). Predicting political elections from rapid and unreflective face judgments. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA.
What's in That Face? A Candidate's Future
Even though voters often cite competence as a political candidate's most desirable quality, their decisions about which candidates are competent and which are not can rest on as little as a quick glance at a photograph, researchers are reporting.
Moreover, this quick inference can be used to accurately predict the results of an election, according to the study, published in the June 10 issue of Science.
"We have found that these judgments occur extremely quickly and are highly automatic," said Crystal Hall, a graduate student in psychology and a co-author of the study.
She added, "Based on that finding, it is hard to say whether or not one could truly avoid the influence" of these first impressions.