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.