This is the second of a series on the intersection of science and politics which looks at how people make their political decisions. In the first post, we looked at how the shape of the brain is correlated with political thinking. Now we’ll look at something else: how your brain reacts to a candidate’s appearance. A big shout out to Emily Dennis at Rockefeller University for turning me on to these studies and guiding me through some science of ill-repute with this subject.
Politics . . . in your face!
We’ve known for a long time that the appearance of a political candidate affects whether people vote for that candidate or not. A team of scientists led by Michael Spezio of Scripps College took this a bit further and looked into how the brain processes the appearance to get to this result. Their results showed something they did not expect: the effect is not influenced by positive appearance aspects of the winning candidate. Instead, the effect purely came from the negative appearance aspects of the losing candidate, meaning that people were voting against the loser rather than for the winner.
The team actually conducted two different experiments with different sets of people. In the first, the subjects were given pictures of two candidates and were asked to vote for one. The pictures were actual candidates from the 2006 midterm elections, but the subjects were unfamiliar with the candidates they were presented. In the second experiment, the subjects were shown pictures of unfamiliar political candidates and were asked whether, based on the picture, a particular candidate was attractive or not, whether he/she was competent or not, whether he/she was publicly deceitful or not, and whether he/she was personally threatening or not. They used fMRI brain scans in both studies to see what areas of the brain were active when making these judgments. fMRI looks for increased blood flow in the brain, which lets you deduce that a particular area of the brain is active.
In both experiments, they found that the brain was active when looking at negative aspects of a candidates appearance, and not when looking at the positives of the winning candidate. So, when appearance affects voting, it appears that the voter is voting against the negative aspects of a candidate and not for the positive aspects.
One thing to remember is that the subjects in these experiments were reviewing unfamiliar candidates. My suspicion is that this effect plays a much bigger role with uninformed voters than it does with more informed voters. People that know nothing about a candidates or their parties will vote more based on appearance than those who are voting based on parties or the beliefs of the candidate.