Psychology Today: On The Power of Appearance

How We Are Judged by Our Appearance

Facial appearance translates to judgments of character.

We all know that looks matter. What most of us don’t understand is just how much looks matter, and how difficult it is for us to ignore a person’s appearance when making a social judgment. I’m not talking just about romantic relationships, I’m talking about all our human interactions. And by appearance, I’m not speaking simply of the “beauty,” dimension, but also of many other qualities of one’s appearance.

In all our perceptions, from vision to hearing, to the pictures we build of people’s character, our unconscious mind starts from whatever objective data is available to us – usually spotty – and helps to shape and construct the more complete picture we consciously perceive. In order to offer us this more complete picture, our unconscious employs clever tricks and educated guessing to fill in some blanks. In our perception of people, and their perceptions of us, the hidden, subliminal mind takes limited data, and creates a picture that seems clear and real, but is actually built largely on unconscious inferences that are made employing factors such as a person’s body language, voice, clothing, appearance, and social category. In earlier blog entries I’ve talked about body language and voice. Here I will focus on the important subliminal influence of a person’s facial appearance.

The arena in which facial appearance has been studied the most is politics – and an examination of that is especially appropriate in this election year. But the voting arena is also a good area to study the effects of appearance more generally, because many of our social decisions essentially amount to a vote: whom do we hire, whom do we date, whom do we trust? As in those instances, when we vote for a political candidate, we like to think we are examining the person on his or her merits, not on looks. But are we?

As I wrote in a recent Op Ed piece for the New York Times, recent research suggests that we may need to adopt a more cynical attitude. It turns out that a candidate’s appearance — not beauty, but a look of competence — can generate a significant vote swing. Furthermore, this effect is not only powerful but also subliminal. Few of us realize that appearance determines our vote, yet for a significant number of us, it may.

In one study, led by the political scientist Shawn W. Rosenberg of the University of California, Irvine, 140 volunteers were told that they were participating in a study of voting in which they would scrutinize candidates for Congress in three nearby districts. For each of the three races, the volunteers were shown two fliers presenting information about the candidates, including their party affiliations and their stances on several issues. Each flier also included a photo of the candidate.

Power of Appearance

In reality, the fliers had been concocted for the experiment. The photos were not of actual candidates but of models (all white males dressed in coat and tie) whose visages, in a prior survey with different volunteers, had been given either high or low marks with regard to perceived qualities like integrity, competence and leadership ability.

For each of the three races, the researchers arranged for half the subjects to see a flier in which the candidate with the more favorable appearance was pictured as the liberal Democrat, while the other half saw him pictured as the conservative Republican. That way, regardless of the split in party preference among the participants, the two candidates should receive about an equal number of votes if looks didn’t matter. Instead, the voting split about 60-40, with the majority favoring the candidate with the better visage.

A related series of studies, also led by Professor Rosenberg, showed that candidates could exert some control over the appearance factor. Researchers first recruited 210 volunteers to rate head-and-shoulder shots of hundreds of women in terms of how “able-looking” they were. From these ratings they determined that certain factors contribute to this appearance: for example, eyes with more curvature on the top than the bottom; hair that is short and parted on the side or combed back; a hairline that comes to a slight widow’s peak; a broad or round face; and a smile. Then they employed a Hollywood-style makeup artist and a photographer to use these criteria to create two images of each candidate, one more able-looking and one less. (A second study confirmed that the manipulations had the desired effect.)

Finally, the researchers recruited another set of volunteers to do the voting. Each candidate was presented in her “attractive” form to half the subjects, while her opponent was presented in her “unattractive” form. The other half of the subjects saw the same women running under the same party banners, but with the appearance variable reversed. On average, the candidates received 56 percent of the vote when portrayed by the better campaign photo, compared with 44 percent when portrayed by the unfavorable photograph — a vote swing of 12 percentage points.

In another series of studies, conducted at Princeton by the psychologists Alexander Todorov and Charles C. Ballew II, participants were presented with pairs of head-shot photos of the competing candidates in hundreds of actual Congressional and gubernatorial elections in the United States. After displaying a photo pair for just a quarter of a second, the researchers asked the participants to judge which candidate was more competent. (If a participant recognized a candidate, his response for that race was not counted.) These fleeting and uninformed impressions of competence turned out to correlate strongly with the actual election results. Over the hundreds of races tested, the more competent-looking candidate won the real-world election about 70 percent of the time.

The idea that appearance might be so influential is remarkable in light of the billions of dollars spent each election year to advertise candidates’ records, views and personal qualities. But what is really eye-opening is the idea similar hidden influences may exert a similar significant effect on all the other people choices we make in every day life.

Adapted from Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior. Copyright 2012 by Leonard Mlodinow