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Republicans prefer ‘Republican-looking’ political candidates

Monday, January 23, 2012
posted by Douglas Keene

As I consider the Republican Presidential candidate lineup, I can’t figure out just how a ‘Republican-looking’ candidate might look. Is it the patrician and reserved Mitt Romney? The disgruntled Newt Gingrich? The intense and dry humored conservative Ron Paul? The GQ-ready Rick Perry? Or someone else? I’m not sure what a Republican looks like.  Or whether there is a ‘Republican look’. It turns out these researchers (and their participants) cannot answer that question either but it is clear there is ‘something’ communicated to the observer in photographs of Republican and Democratic candidates.

Researchers obtained photos of Republican and Democrat political candidates and removed any highly recognizable candidates from the array. The photos were simple head shots. They replaced the backgrounds with a plain gray background so that contextual cues were not available. They displayed only Republican or Democrat candidates in 256 elections and asked half the participants to identify (in a computer presented format) which candidate they thought was Democrat (thus, by default, identifying the other as Republican). They asked the other half of the participants to identify which candidate they thought was Republican (thus, by default, identifying the other as Democrat).

When they discovered participants tended to identify female or non-Caucasian candidates as Democrat, they performed an analysis of the entire sample as well as one in which they only included candidates who were both white males.

The results were disturbingly accurate. Republican or Republican-leaning participants were more accurate in identifying the candidates’ political affiliation. There was no particular bias for or against facial appearance among the Democrat or Democrat-leaning participants. The researchers concluded that conservative voters are more influenced by political facial stereotypes than are liberal voters.

To be certain, they also checked facial competence [whether participants thought the person appeared competent], attractiveness, and the sense of the candidates‘ honesty and dependability. All of these were based on their attributions to a photograph. None of these perceived traits or qualities correlated with the participants identification of the photo to a political party. When they compared “permanent facial characteristics” (like bone structure) with “transitory features” (such as facial expression, eye gaze direction or head tilt)–again, the effect seemed to be related to something permanent in facial features.

So no one can tell us just “what a Republican looks like” but Republican voters can “see it”. Seriously? We know this happens with religious affiliation where others can identify whether you are or are not a Mormon. But political affiliation? Our take is that they are responding to a sense of familiarity with leaders they prefer. The one with whom they most closely connect. The one that is most like them. It is a human inclination that we have written about before, and it appears to resonate with voters as well as jurors.

Olivola, C., Sussman, A., Tsetsos, K., Kang, O., & Todorov, A. (2012). Republicans Prefer Republican-Looking Leaders: Political Facial Stereotypes Predict Candidate Electoral Success Among Right-Leaning Voters Social Psychological and Personality Science DOI: 10.1177/1948550611432770

Image is one of the stimuli used in the actual study. Who’s the Republican?

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