Candidates' Face-Off, Morph or Less

By Richard Morin
Tuesday, February 28, 2006

It's not always true that familiarity breeds contempt. An unknown political candidate who bears a passing resemblance to Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) will be liked more than one who doesn't -- even when the candidate is a man.

But a fresh face who looks a bit like Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) may be out of luck. The more a candidate looks like McCain, the less people like him or her, according to the first online experiment conducted by The Washington Post, washingtonpost.com and Shanto Iyengar, director of the political communication lab at Stanford University.

For the study, Iyengar and his collaborators created composite photo images that blended the facial characteristics of a national political figure with those of a largely unknown woman and an unfamiliar man. The photos of five political luminaries were used: McCain, Clinton, former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani (R) and Sens. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.).

The photos of the five "targets" were morphed with the photos of two other politicians virtually unknown outside their home districts: Reps. Ed Case (D-Hawaii) and Mary Bono (R-Calif.). The result was a blended image of a man or a woman that was not recognizable as the target pol but still retained his or her essential features.

Participants clicked into the experiment homepage and viewed the image composed of 20 or 40 percent of one target politician's face blended with Bono or Case. They were informed the photo was of a candidate for the Senate named Paul Vaughn, or Paula Vaughn if the image was of a female. (They were asked at the end of the experiment whether candidate Vaughn resembled anyone. Virtually no one got it right.)

Our online lab rats also read slightly different versions of candidate Vaughn's biography. Some were informed the candidate was a Democrat while others were told Vaughn was a Republican. Participants rated candidate Vaughn's intelligence, sincerity, attractiveness and positions on issues. More than 2,200 people participated.

Psychological theory suggests the morphs that bore some resemblance to well-known politicians would be viewed as more likable. When the results were analyzed, Iyengar found that looking more like Clinton or McCain produced dramatic but opposite results.

"No matter the gender or party affiliation of the candidate, changing the composition of the face from 20 percent Clinton to 40 percent Clinton is a significant plus," Iyengar found. "Moreover, the effect occurs across different types of voters -- men and women, Democrats, independents and even Republicans."

But the more candidate Vaughn looked like McCain, the more likability dropped. And it wasn't a "Beauty and the Beast" effect, though McCain's age may have played a role. The morphs of Hutchison, a former University of Texas cheerleader, didn't move the needle significantly. Nor did the morphs of the good-looking Bayh or Giuliani, who most agree must be content with inner beauty.

"But even when we limit the analysis to the Republicans," Iyengar said, "the degree of similarity to Giuliani or McCain does nothing for Vaughn's support, suggesting there's something special about Hillary Clinton."

Full Study Results

Great Art by the Numbers

The most important artwork of the 20th century is (drum roll, please) . . .

" Les Demoiselles d'Avignon," the 1907 painting of five prostitutes by Pablo Picasso that helped to usher in cubism, says economist David W. Galenson of the University of Chicago.

Galenson has devoted his recent career to quantifying art and artists. He bases his latest ranking on an analysis of 33 recently published art history books. He counted how often a photo or illustration of each work appears in these leading texts.

"Les Demoiselles" appeared in 28 of the 33 books he examined. In second place with 25 appearances was Vladimir Tatlin's "Monument to the Third International," the 1919 design and model for a monument to Communism that was never constructed. Galenson awarded the bronze medal to Robert Smithson's groundbreaking (literally) outdoor construction "Spiral Jetty" built in 1970 in the Great Salt Lake and featured in 23 art history books.

Who Would Have Thought? Burned-Out Prostitutes, Pricing Pancakes And Crazy English

· "Burnout Among Female Indoor Sex Workers" by Ine Vanwesenbeeck. Archives of Sexual Behavior, Vol. 34, No. 6. A Dutch researcher finds that enlightened management practices and supportive colleagues reduce job burnout among prostitutes.

· "Odd Versus Even Prices and Consumers' Behavior" by Nicolas Gueguen and Celine Jacob. Psychological Reports, Vol. 96, No. 3. French social scientists discover that people are more likely to buy pancakes if their price ends in a 9 than in a zero even if they had to pay a fraction more.

· "The English Learning Mania in China" by Ai Zhang. Paper presented at the last National Communication Association convention. A University of Maryland doctoral student reports that learning to speak English has become a national obsession in China, where the creator of the wildly popular "Crazy English" language program overcomes students' traditional shyness by shouting out English words and demanding that students shout them back.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company