Study Shows Faces Sway Voters

What voters -- at least young voters -- want most in their elected officials is the appearance of competence, suggests a study by Princeton University researchers and students.

"When we ask what is the most important characteristic in a person running for public office, it's competence," Princeton University psychology professor Alexander Todorov said, adding that in their survey of Princeton undergraduate and graduate students, competence beat out qualities such as trustworthiness and emotional stability.

But how do these voters decide who is more competent?

Todorov and his students flashed at least 15 pairs of images of competing House and Senate candidates before each of their 840 volunteers and asked them to choose which one looked more competent. They then checked on how the elections came out and found that the candidates identified as more competent-looking by a majority of the volunteers in each contest won 71.6 percent of 2004 Senate races and 66.8 percent of House races that year. They reported the results in the June 10 issue of the journal Science.

The findings are significant, Todorov said in an interview, because they showed that "a minimal amount of information" can be a powerful predictor of election outcomes. These kinds of quick, unreflective judgments can influence voters' attitudes, even as analysts focus more on factors such as party affiliation or the candidates' positions.

-- Juliet Eilperin

In Vitro Babies Grow Taller

Babies born through in vitro fertilization tend to be taller than those conceived naturally and may be less prone to heart disease, new research suggests.

Harriet Miles of the University of Auckland in New Zealand compared 50 6- and 7-year-old children who had been conceived using IVF with 60 conceived naturally. The IVF children tended to be taller than those conceived naturally when the researchers calculated what their height would be expected to be based on their age and parents' height, the researchers reported last week at a meeting of the Endocrine Society in San Diego. In addition, the IVF children had higher levels of growth hormones in their blood.

The researchers also found that the IVF children tended to have higher levels of high-density lipoprotein, or HDL, the "good cholesterol" because it helps remove low-density lipoprotein, the "bad cholesterol."

Miles speculated that there is something about the IVF process that alters genes in subtle ways through a process known as "imprinting."

"We speculate that IVF has altered imprinting in these children and that aspects of this alteration are manifested in growth and lipid regulating genes, resulting in differences between the two groups," Miles wrote in her presentation.

-- Rob Stein

Genes' Role in Orgasm Studied

Women who have difficulty achieving orgasm can blame their genes for much of the problem, according to the first study to assess the genetic contribution to female sexual dysfunction.

Many women report that they never or rarely achieve orgasm, but little is known about the extent to which such problems are plainly biological.

Tim Spector of St. Thomas' Hospital in London and colleagues sent a survey to thousands of pairs of twins in the largest adult twin registry in Britain, which has helped scientists study the genetic influence of traits ranging from blood-clotting ability to musical prowess. By studying how identical and non-identical twins differ, twin studies can reveal the extent to which genes (which are the same in identical twins but only 50 percent the same in non-identical twins) contribute to variations in traits among people.

A total of 683 pairs of identical twins and 714 pairs of non-identical twins responded to the survey, which asked women what proportion of their sexual encounters result in orgasm. Overall, one-third reported never or rarely having an orgasm during intercourse and about one-fifth reported never or rarely have an orgasm during masturbation. An analysis of how often identical twins' answers were the same as those of non-identical twins indicated that genetic components account for about one-third to one-half of a woman's likelihood of having an orgasm.

To the extent orgasmic ability is heritable, it suggests that it has an evolutionary role, such as enhancing fertility -- an idea that remains controversial among scientists.

Genetically controlled factors that could contribute to orgasmic ability include variations in anatomy, hormone levels, responsiveness of the brain's pleasure center and tendencies toward anxiety or depression, the team said.

The study appeared in last week's online issue of the Royal Society publication Biology Letters.

-- Rick Weiss

Russell Feingold (D), left, and Tim Michels (R), opponents in the 2004 Wisconsin Senate race, were one set of faces used in a study that suggested that voters want a candidate who is competent-looking.