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April 22, 2008

What's in a Face? Could Be Votes

Gita Johar
Meyer Feldberg Professor of Business
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Does Barack Obama have a better shot at beating John McCain than Hillary Clinton? The answer may lie partly in whether voters are looking for honesty or competence in their candidate. And one clue to how candidates are perceived is the shape of their face. Babyfaces (large eyes, small nose, high forehead and small chin) are judged to be more honest than mature faces, but also as more naïve and perhaps less competent.

A survey of 150 Columbia undergraduates found that they perceived all three presidential hopefuls as having somewhat mature (rather than baby) faces; however, Obama was judged to have a significantly less mature face than Clinton. Consistent with the face stereotype, he was also perceived to be more honest than Clinton.

So is Obama likely to have a better shot at beating McCain than Clinton? Not so fast. In our survey, judgments of babyfaceness were negatively correlated with competence. In other words, the less mature the face is perceived to be, the less competent the candidate is judged to be.

And while Obama and Clinton are rated as equally competent when the question is asked directly, Clinton’s and Obama’s faces could cue voters to perceive Clinton as more competent.

The ultimate question is whether honesty or competence will dominate the election this Fall. Our survey found that George W. Bush was rated to be both dishonest and incompetent (this was a Democratically skewed sample), but judgments of his competence were significantly lower than judgments of his honesty.

In this situation, Obama has two winning strategies. First, make the issue of honesty crucial in the election by highlighting instances of dishonesty in the current administration. And second, provide strong cues to competence so that the face-shape cue is not used to form competence judgments.

What about Clinton? Given her low honesty ratings (even lower than McCain’s), she needs to downplay the importance of honesty and hope that her face helps legitimize her claims of greater competence.


by BlogCruiser | April 22, 2008 at 4:03 PM

Did respondents rate the 'babyfacedness' of George Bush as well? If his maturity rating was high, perhaps the pendulum would swing towards 'babyfacedness' given his low approval ratings.

by Gita Johar | April 22, 2008 at 6:03 PM

Interesting observation. Bush was at the mid-point of the scale--neither baby nor mature faced. If the cause of his low approval ratings is perceptions of dishonesty, we may well see the pendulum swing toward babyfaces.

by M. Razouki | April 23, 2008 at 6:31 AM

Suffice it to say that these were undergrads from an Ivy League university Although they were not facial action coding system experts, they do know the backgrounds of each of these candidates and have heard them speak, etc etc it would be more interesting to see what people from the Zsau Zsau tribe in inner africa, i.e. someone who never knew that Obama was a Columbia undergrad and that Hilary was a republican in undergrad In any event...it should be a interesting 'face-off' between the demos and repbulicos

by Gita Johar | April 23, 2008 at 11:37 AM

Great point. The face takes on more importance when other cues are not diagnostic or when people are ambivalent. If Obama and Clinton are viewed by swing voters as being very close on policy positions, then face effects may unconsciously come into play. A broader point is that the trait that is viewed as most lacking in the current President, will take on added importance when voting for the next President. And, as you point out, people make trait inferences about candidates from many pieces of information other than the face.

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