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Interviewee: Jeremy Bailenson, Stanford University
Social physiology is full of studies showing that we favor people who are similar to us in varied and sometimes meaningless ways. For instance, if you find out that you share the same birthday with someone, you are more likely to help them. Or, we are more likely to help a stranger if we’ve been told this stranger shares our attitudes.
On the other hand, the field of political science has historically approached people’s behavior from the perspective of “the rational voter,” a person who votes based only on the policies and beliefs of candidates.
But as social psychology and political science merge, the rational voter is being exposed as something of a myth.
A recent study showed that we make snap judgments about candidates’ perceived competence within just one-tenth of a second after seeing their pictures.
The classic example is the 1960 Nixon-Kennedy presidential debate. People who listened to the debate on the radio thought Nixon won, while those who watched on TV favored Kennedy. The belief is that Nixon’s relatively unattractive appearance made a huge difference to TV viewers.
All this led Stanford researchers Jeremy Bailenson and Shanto Iyengar to devise a novel experiment to find out if a person’s vote could be swayed by making electoral candidates physically look more like the voter.
Their results, to be published in the Public Opinion Quarterly, showed that when a candidate’s face is altered to look very subtly like yours, you might be more likely to vote for them.
“The simple fact of changing someone’s face to make it a little bit more similar to yours is enough to make you choose a different president,” says Bailenson.
Morph the Vote
Their paper describes three unique experiments, one of which happened just before the 2004 presidential election. A national random sample of volunteers was recruited, and as part of the process they were asked to send in photographs of their faces. The volunteers were given a false reason for needing the photographs so that the real need was disguised.
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Bailenson’s team then used special software to “morph” each volunteer’s face with either President George W. Bush’s or John Kerry’s. These morphed photos were subtle – everyone in the study thought they were looking at real photos of Bush or Kerry, and nobody noticed themselves.
“We’ve now run over 1,000 people from all across the country, had them see their own photo morphed into a candidate, and of those thousand people not a single person has had any idea that their own face has been blended into the candidate,” says Bailenson.
One week before the election, the volunteers took an online survey that asked several questions about the candidates, including which one they intended to vote for. All along, the images of the candidates were clearly visible, but very often one of them was a morph of the candidate mixed with the person taking the survey.
These morphs had a startling effect.
• One-third of the volunteers saw real pictures of Bush and Kerry; they gave Bush 46 percent of the vote, and Kerry 44 percent.
• The one-third who had a photo of themselves morphed with Bush visible throughout the survey gave Bush a landslide 53 to 38 percent victory. (With 9% undecided.)
• Among those who had a photo of themselves morphed with Kerry visible throughout the survey, Kerry actually won the election, 47 to 41 percent. (Twelve percent undecided.)
“We changed the patterns of who they indicated they would vote for by a very large margin, despite the fact that none of them consciously knew their own face had been there,” says Bailenson. “Remember, it was a week before the election. One would have thought they’d already figured out who they were going to vote for in a very important decision in their lives – who’s going to be the next president. … They had an emotional, subconscious opinion about this person [with which they were morphed] that manifested itself.”
The effect was only seen among independent voters and people whose party identity was weak. Dyed-in-the-wool republicans and democrats were not swayed.
The Irrational Voter
Bailenson and Iyengar say their work puts yet another dent into the idea of the rational voter.
“The field of political science has been dominated in the last 50 years with the assumption that the voter is a rational voter, meaning voters make their decisions based on substantive issues: foreign policy, economic policy,” says Bailenson. “What we’re demonstrating is that people make decisions about candidates on very superficial features. … And this idea of similarity of face and nonverbal cues governing political decisions is one that needs to receive more focus both from academics, but as well as people who are thinking about policy.”
He thinks there are clear implications for the 2008 election. Bailenson isn’t willing to make a prediction about who will win, but he does think these superficial features will play a powerful role in an election where 18 percent of voters are said to still be undecided, and which has already been handicapped along racial lines.
“In the current election where we know that race and gender are going to play a huge, huge, huge part in how people are going to make their decision, the surface features, meaning how people look, are going to be very important in terms of how people vote,” Bailenson says.
But Could This Really Happen?
While it’s easy to assume that this individually tailored morphing is an experimental trick that would never happen in the real world, Bailenson says not to discount it.
“There’s two issues to think about here,” he says. “The first is that right now candidates tailor themselves to you. They don’t do it to your doorstep, but they do it to your demographic. So people in very wealthy neighborhoods get different political flyers than people who live in poorer neighborhoods. People who live in Latino neighborhoods receive different flyers than those who live in African American neighborhoods.
“Now back to your original question which was, ‘Can they do this to me now with my photograph?’ If you think about that every person has their photographs in a driver’s license database with the government. Or that using photograph websites like Ofoto or Flickr or Google Images, it’s pretty easy to find pictures of people. It’s not unrealistic, given how much candidates spend on their messages, to imagine they could have room full of people to do the morphing process on your face before they send you a flyer. … We’ve shown you earlier that when you do this morphing process it only takes about 20 minutes. It’s not very expensive to do this. It would be very possible and feasible, economically and technologically, do actually do this in the short term.”
So while the classic campaign slogan is “Vote for me!” — we might want to get ready for “Vote for you!”
The study will be published in the Winter 2008 issue of the Public Opinion Quarterly; it was funded by the National Science Foundation.
The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies, by Bryan Caplan
FactCheck.org – Monitors the factual accuracy of what is said by major U.S. political players.
FaceResearch.org – participate in short online psychology experiments about faces and voices.
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