By Shankar Vedantam
Monday, November 6, 2006
Quick, what three issues will decide your vote in the midterm elections?
Did you mention a sleek physique, a strong jaw and a penetrating gaze? Didn't think so.
Elections are supposed to be about issues. In tomorrow's election, those issues include the war in Iraq, terrorism and the spiraling cost of health care.
Hardly anyone mentions good looks and charisma, but a number of ingenious experiments show that how a politician looks and comes across to voters can make a huge difference in the outcome of an election.
In research that will be made public today, a pair of economists asked a large group to watch 10-second video clips of the Republican and Democratic gubernatorial candidates in 58 races from 1988 to 2002. Based on this limited information -- a quick, gut sense of charisma -- the volunteers were asked to guess which candidate won.
If people recognized either politician, their answer was dropped from the analysis, meaning that any knowledge about the outcome or expertise in politics was removed from the study. All the volunteers, in other words, were simply guessing and ought to have been no better at predicting the winner than someone tossing a coin.
Remarkably, the study found, the volunteers were quite good at guessing the winner.
If your jaw hasn't dropped already, this ought to do it: The 10-second video clips that the volunteers watched had the sound off, meaning that viewers saw only two white guys (all the elections featured two white guys) sawing the air and opening and closing their mouths. What the economists wanted to measure were those intangibles we pick up the moment we see someone, before we actually hear what they have to say.
The research did not show that any individual volunteers were exceptionally good at making predictions -- individuals regularly made predictions that were right and wrong. But when the answers were averaged over the whole group, the volunteers were able to spot winners more often than mere chance would dictate.
Curiously, when the sound was on and the volunteers could hear what each candidate said for 10 seconds, the viewers became much more confident in their guesses about who won, but their predictions became worse -- no better than chance.
The idea that better knowledge does not always improve judgment is sobering but aligns with previous research. In a book he wrote about expert political opinion, Philip Tetlock at the University of California at Berkeley found highly trained experts often do no better at predicting political events than nonexperts or even someone tossing a coin. Our faith in political pundits -- and the confidence these experts have in their own intuitions -- is often misplaced.
The new study is being released online today as a working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research, a forum where economists share ideas. The study was conducted by Daniel Benjamin at the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research and Jesse Shapiro at the University of Chicago.
Benjamin said that while economists have long thought the shape of the economy played a central role in elections, the study showed that it was less important than charisma.
"Economists have focused on the performance of the economy under the incumbent," he said. "Those factors explain at most 10 percent of the variation in the election outcomes and probably much less, whereas the personal factors explain between 20-30 percent."
Isn't such superficiality a bad thing? Benjamin argued that was not clear. While voters could be electing unqualified people who happen to be charismatic, he said it was equally possible charisma is an essential ingredient for leadership. If charismatic politicians were better able to get their policies enacted, wouldn't it make sense to want such telegenic leaders?
If you are a diehard Republican or Democrat, you are probably rolling your eyes. You would never vote for a candidate simply based on looks.
This is true, but no one said charisma explains how everyone votes. People with strong ideological beliefs probably override such initial reactions to support their party candidate. But charisma could play a significant role for voters with less certain views -- the swing voters who often decide who wins.
"My guess is it affects undecided voters, these are the guys who swing the elections at the end," said Alexander Todorov, a psychologist at Princeton University who has conducted similar experiments. He found that when people are shown two photographs of political candidates but given no other information, they usually have a quick feeling about who looks more competent.
Such quick guesses in the House and Senate elections of 2000, 2002 and 2004 proved not only accurate in guessing who won but in predicting who would win an upcoming race.
Todorov said that however unscientific and biased snap judgments might be, they could influence elections not only in deciding which candidate to vote for but in deciding whether to vote at all: "If it is a close race and you are undecided but you have a mild preference for the challenger, but the incumbent looks very competent, maybe you won't go in and vote."