What's in a face? A lot if you're running for office. Researchers at Princeton University have found that congressional candidates who looked more "competent" -- based on viewers' snap judgments made from photos -- won their elections more than two-thirds of the time.
Social scientists asked hundreds of students to look at stock black-and-white photos of real congressional candidates they didn't know. Then scientists asked the students to rate the candidates on their competence.
The candidates the students picked as more competent turned out to be the actual winners 70 percent of the time.
The results show that split-second decisions are often a major factor in how people vote -- regardless of the candidates' qualifications or position on the issues, the researchers say.
"I think it shows a lot of inferences that we make happen very quickly, and we could be unaware that we are even making them," said Alexander Todorov, lead author and a psychologist at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
In the study, published today in the journal Science, the researchers instructed 843 Princeton graduate and undergraduate students to use their "gut instincts" to judge congressional candidates from 2000, 2002 and 2004 elections based strictly on photographs.
The photos were taken from a cable news Web site and controlled for focus, size, content and overall quality. Races with well-known candidates, such as John Kerry and John McCain, were excluded from the study.
In one of several sets of questions, participants rated their impressions of the candidates' competence based on a one-second look at their photos. Studies have shown that competence is one of the most important criteria people claim to use for evaluating politicians.
Todorov said that elections are usually decided based on a number of factors and that a candidate's face is just one of them. Otherwise how could the baby-faced Bill Clinton have defeated the more mature-looking George Bush?
The study results are no surprise to political experts.
A candidate's looks and whether he or she can project feelings of confidence and maturity are a major factor in any race, said Bill Greener, a Republican consultant.
"I'd be surprised if it weren't true," he said.
But Todorov said the study has implications for how politicians market themselves.
"My bet is that this is part of the decision-making for the undecided voter," Todorov said. "You still have to have support of one of the major parties to get the nomination."
Psychologists say that snap decision-making remains one of the least understood and least studied phenomena in human behavior.
"We disapprove of it having an influence in our lives. There's almost a denial that it exists, and in a way that makes it more powerful because it's not a conscious thing," said Leslie Zebrowitz, a psychology professor at Brandeis University and an expert on how we judge faces.
In an accompanying article, Zebrowitz said a mature face is likely to win out over someone who is "baby-faced" -- defined as having a round face, large eyes, small nose, high forehead and small chin -- regardless of sex or ethnicity.
In an interview, she said research shows job candidates, potential friends and accused criminals are routinely judged based on facial characteristics.
In a study several years ago of 500 civil cases in a small-claims court, the baby-faced litigant was likely to be exonerated in cases of intentional wrongdoing, but found responsible when accused of negligent acts.
"The perception is you're less competent, but also less likely to mislead people if you're baby-faced," she said.
In a best-selling book, journalist Malcolm Gladwell chronicles how voters were drawn to Warren G. Harding because of his good looks, despite signs of incompetence.
"He was so incompetent, and yet he so much looked the part," said Gladwell, author of the book Blink.