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A face for politics: New study shows we can tell Democrats from Republicans in head shots

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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You can tell a lot about a person by their face—even their political affiliation, new research claims.

In a study published in the January 18 issue of PLoS One, subjects were able to accurately identify candidates from the 2004 and 2006 U.S. Senate elections as either Democrats or Republicans based on black-and-white photos of their faces. And subjects were even able to correctly identify college students as belonging to Democratic or Republican clubs based on their yearbook photos.

To investigate the basis of these judgments, subjects were asked to rate photos of faces on a seven-point scale assessing personality traits such as assertiveness, maturity, likeability and trustworthiness. Subjects consistently associated Democrats with warmth (likeable and trustworthy) and Republicans with power (dominant and mature). These findings were independent of the gender of the person in the photo.

The authors concluded that people possess "a general and imperfect" ability to infer political affiliation based on facial appearance, which is related to stereotypes about Democrat and Republican personalities. The ability to surmise other perceptually ambiguous traits, such as sexual orientation and religious group membership, has been reported in similar studies.

The consequences of this general and imperfect ability are worrisome, with career opportunities, court rulings and financial success potentially falling subject to prejudicial judgments, according to the authors.

But surely these judgments don’t interfere with election results, do they?

In a study published in Science in February 2009, subjects were able to predict from a pair of photos of faces alone which political figure would win an election. Even children could pick the winner when asked who they would prefer to be captain of their boat. And in a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in November 2007, researchers linked competence perceived from a candidate’s face to his or her electoral success.

The latest study adds to the growing body of evidence suggesting that certain traits once thought to be indistinguishable based on looks alone are in fact written all over our faces.

Image courtesy of iStockPhoto/southsidecanuck





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  1. 1. Bill Case 5:12 pm 01/27/2010

    I have always thought that ‘cultural’ differences were both more complex and subtle than usually attributed to them. And, I have always thought that humans were far more adroit at making cultural distinctions and judgements than the literature gives us credit for. I believe these cultural generalizations — stereotypes — are usually accurate or at least accurate enough for us to make our way through the hundreds (thousands ?) of social interactions that we have every day.

    It is only when we make the occasional incorrect judgement that this generalization process becomes noticeable and named ‘prejudice’ or ‘bigotry’.

    As a society we have spent too much time and energy try to stop prejudging. It is a skill we need and use continually and, I believe, the result of an iterative process between nature and nurture. Our efforts should not be to eliminate prejudging but to get better at it.

    This article only points at the tip of the iceberg regarding the subtlety and depth of our generalizations.

    Link to this
  2. 2. tharriss 5:25 pm 01/27/2010

    This also speaks to how people are less rational and informed in their political choices than they think…. in the end, most unconsciously pick the "pretty" face.

    People who prefer the "big stick" ready, fire, aim approach, pick the perceived "strong" faces, and people who are more earthy-crunchy pick the "warm" faces. Actual policy objectives? Who cares?

    Link to this
  3. 3. abyssalmystery 6:28 pm 01/27/2010

    Another pseudo-science article worthy of the trash bin. I wonder if Republicans trim their toe nails more than Democrats?

    Link to this
  4. 4. Dolmance 7:27 pm 01/27/2010

    Actually, the data was gathered in a very traditional manner and speaks for itself – people looked at faces and head shape and correction determined political affinities. There’s nothing to argue here.

    However, there is a lot of scientific evidence and conclusions that are thrown into the trash by Republicans. This is another of their features, to go along with their badly formed and not pleasing to look at heads.

    Most scientists are not Republicans. There’s a reason for that. It’s called IQ, plus an ability to examine one’s motives. Your side of the aisle is without these capabilities. But take heart – you’re probably in a majority, which should make you feel better.

    Link to this
  5. 5. Bill Case 8:17 pm 01/27/2010

    It is a shame, the way people have reacted to this article with affected cynicism and political jibes.

    This study is a gateway to understanding the profound ability that humans have of correctly interpreting their social surroundings. I am convinced that when fully explored, cultural generalizations will prove as complex as vision and involve as many if not more disparate parts of the brain.

    Starting with something as simple as face recognition which requires a large hunk of brain power, and a category (political allegiance) that has no apparent physical signature but is at the same time understandable to a large number of subjects the authors of this study have been rather ingenious.

    I believe that this type of study begins to explore human characteristics that are much deeper than just still photographes of faces and politics.

    Link to this
  6. 6. motie 8:19 pm 01/27/2010

    What the author is saying is that facial features and political leaning are strongly correlated. It isn’t just the aesthetic preferences of the viewer. It is some strange mechanism in the person being viewed that causes their politics to be correlated to their looks. This is something I have long noted: that looks determine personality. Maybe it’s because of cultural stereotypes, especially on TV. You look in the mirror and you see a person who looks tough and self-sufficient. So that’s what you become. You spend your life playing the role that your mirror dictated to you. Part of it may be the way others relate to you. If people like you based on your looks, you become extroverted and gregarious, and perhaps conformist.

    This makes a total hash of knowledge-based belief systems and rational decision-making. As Douglas Adams once wrote, "People are a problem".

    Link to this
  7. 7. sparcboy 9:39 pm 01/27/2010

    Has anyone stopped for a second and thought (clearly not Dolmance) that this is a "which came first, the chicken or the egg" situation.
    Ones facial features are determined by genetics that have nothing to do with a cultural predisposition.
    And what of the old saying, "Any young person who is not a liberal, doesn’t have a heart, and any old person who is not a conservative doesn’t have a brain." How many of us have had a tendency toward liberalism in youth, but grew more conservative with age? How did this mental shift cause the 7 points in the face to shift.
    The more I think about it, the more I think this article is total hogwash.
    Bill nailed it: This article only points at the tip of the iceberg regarding the subtlety and depth of our generalizations.
    (Dolmance…this is the Scientific American website, not MSNBC, Huffpo, etc.)

    Link to this
  8. 8. Mirch 5:03 am 01/28/2010

    "It’s called IQ, plus an ability to examine one’s motives. Your side of the aisle is without these capabilities. But take heart – you’re probably in a majority, which should make you feel better"

    Well examining your motives and capabilities, it appears that you are pretty hateful, bigoted, and moronic yourself.

    Link to this
  9. 9. Mirch 5:07 am 01/28/2010

    "Most scientists are not Republicans. There’s a reason for that. It’s called IQ, plus an ability to examine one’s motives. Your side of the aisle is without these capabilities. But take heart – you’re probably in a majority, which should make you feel better."

    Well by careful examination and observation of your comment dolmance, its appears that you are pretty hateful, bigoted, and moronic yourself. Compensating for a low IQ perhaps?

    Link to this
  10. 10. Rafael1 10:29 am 01/28/2010

    The fact is that Republicans show a stiff countenance due to their having a stick up their butts.

    Link to this
  11. 11. Rafael1 10:30 am 01/28/2010

    Has anyone stopped to think how terribly silly this all is? Republicans always look to me as if they had a stick up their wazzoo.

    Link to this
  12. 12. doxhadawg 12:23 pm 01/28/2010

    "You can tell a lot about a person by their face". NOPE; "his" or "her" or "his or her" face.
    AND: "Even children could pick the winner when asked who they would prefer to be captain of their boat. NOPE: "Whom".
    Writers of the world, get it together.

    Link to this
  13. 13. granitet 3:11 pm 01/28/2010

    Hogwash might be a good description. Prior to 1965 and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and the passage of Civil Rights legislation the South was the Solid Democratic South. Since then and certainly since Ronald Reagan’s "States Rights" the South is now Republican.
    How would this study work if the selected pre 1965 yearbook pictures for the participants to look at.
    Does the same work for liberal/moderate/conservative??
    Probably needs better methodology.

    Link to this
  14. 14. SolutionOriented 4:39 pm 01/28/2010

    This strikes me as little more than a rationalization for profiling. If someone looks at the face of a well-groomed, somewhat overweight, smiling, middle aged Latina, this group would probably assume her religion to be Catholic, her family to be large and her politics to be liberal. More is said about the person imposing the profile than a countenance actually provides.

    Link to this
  15. 15. joelpalmer 8:02 pm 01/28/2010

    Repubs don’t have toenails; they have talons; they are predators

    Link to this
  16. 16. joelpalmer 8:04 pm 01/28/2010

    Well we know from empirical evidence that:
    1. All conservatives are not stupid
    but
    2. All stupid people are conservative

    ESK: the majority of conservatives are stupid

    Link to this
  17. 17. golfcrackerjackdoc 8:24 pm 01/28/2010

    It’s no surprise that appearance reflects sentiment — and that our minds are able to make reasonable guesses based on evolutionary pressures that rewarded such sensibilities.

    But it’s hard to tell how well this study was performed… too much so-called science amounts to little more than data-mining to support preconceptions. In this vein, green politics, climate change modeling, its inherent omitted variable biases, data-mining and the East Anglia Univ. emails come to mind.

    Cocktail time!

    Link to this
  18. 18. tigerim 10:03 am 01/29/2010

    It’s great to use the twitter.

    Link to this
  19. 19. tigerim 10:04 am 01/29/2010

    It’s nice to read this article.

    Link to this
  20. 20. tigerim 10:04 am 01/29/2010

    It’s nice to read this article.

    Link to this
  21. 21. Forrest Greene 12:47 pm 01/29/2010

    I noticed that Dolmance, the person who was quoted above by Mirch, was capable of completing his or her thought in just one attempt.

    Also noticed that Dolmance’s (slightly snide) comment regarding "…scientific evidence and conclusions that are thrown into the trash…" was made immediately after a comment describing the article as "…worthy of the trash bin."

    Oh well. At least some of us don’t pick our toes in Poughkeepsie, as Gene Hackman once said.

    Link to this
  22. 22. doesn't matter 3:09 pm 01/31/2010

    It should be Democratic and Republican personalities, above, not "Democrat and Republican personalities" as you have it. Democratic is the proper adjective form. Please take note. Thanks.

    Link to this
  23. 23. doesn't matter 3:10 pm 01/31/2010

    It should be Democratic and Republican personalities, above, not "Democrat and Republican personalities" as you have it. Democratic is the proper adjective form. Please take note. Thanks.

    Link to this
  24. 24. doesn't matter 3:10 pm 01/31/2010

    It should be Democratic and Republican personalities, above, not "Democrat and Republican personalities" as you have it. Democratic is the proper adjective form. Please take note. Thanks.

    Link to this
  25. 25. Maddie 3:13 pm 01/31/2010

    I am looking for anything to help me understand my right wing sister… I would also suspect that time plus conditioning of in your face fake fear news is also a factor…

    Link to this
  26. 26. doesn't matter 3:16 pm 01/31/2010

    Sorry for the multiple, identical posts above… there was some kind of glitch happening.

    Link to this
  27. 27. Van Buren 3:41 pm 01/31/2010

    Regarding the correlation between appearance and traits: I work in an elementary school wherein students are grouped heterogenously by test scores. Teachers have noted that the "top classes" have a preponderance of the better looking kids. I have wondered whether teachers subconscously "treat" the attractive kids better, or whether there is some kind of correlation between looks and achievement.

    Link to this
  28. 28. Elizabeth Upton 3:43 pm 01/31/2010

    "…stereotypes about Democrat and Republican personalities." That should read "Democratic". The use of Democrat as an adjective is an annoying tactic of some Republicans, and should be avoided.

    Link to this
  29. 29. geewhizbang 3:57 pm 01/31/2010

    So far nobody has mentioned the way our faces tend to pick up the emotions we have lived with. For example, if you have had an extended period of heavy stress, it would be reflected in your face for some time afterward.

    There are probably other several subtle facial distortions that reflect on the way the person has lived their life — such as thoughtfulness, selfishness, honesty, domination / submission, curiosity, and happiness.

    So the results of this study may have nothing to do with the facial characteristics that these people were born with (their genetic appearance) but with the ability of the test subjects to make accurate observations of character / personality traits based on the way these patterns of behavior affected the facial features in the photos.

    This study also confirms other recent work that suggests that the people who are attracted to authoritative ideologies have a mental predisposition or even a mental disability.

    Link to this
  30. 30. Torment 4:28 pm 01/31/2010

    @sparcboy — Have you considered that genetics and womb conditions affect both personality and physical features? E.g., high testosterone. And while we do get things wrong, intuition is a highly evolved survival mechanism. I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss it.

    Link to this
  31. 31. Torment 4:35 pm 01/31/2010

    (not to mention, facial expressions are very telling)

    Link to this
  32. 32. Johnay 10:27 pm 01/31/2010

    I wonder which party’s political operatives/consultants will seize on this first as a tool for candidate/running mate selection?

    I have a suspicion it’s not necessarily reflected in the prevailing political affiliations of commentors accepting vs dismissing either this research or the relevancy to science of the article thereon.

    Link to this
  33. 33. Shell5960 11:44 pm 01/31/2010

    I did this with my children 20 years ago. They were quite young and we watched C-SPAN and I turned the sound off. I asked, "Is that a Republican or a Democrat?" 85% of time, they were correct. As you might have guessed, they knew nothing about politics, so they didn’t have their minds made up beforehand.

    Link to this
  34. 34. Streetwise52 7:02 pm 02/1/2010

    Though your name calling doesn’t bode well for your personal I.Q., your observation about Republicans and Democrats having an intellectual difference in perception has merit. I would proffer the Democrat seeks many possibilities but is unable to draw conclusions, while the Republicans may seek to resolve differences by drawing issues to conclusion too early before all the possibilities are considered. Try to avoid name calling and your ideas will get a broader audience.

    Link to this
  35. 35. dadBlamed 10:21 pm 02/1/2010

    Streetwise52: What is the evidence of the merit? There are more libs in academia, but what does this mean? Academia is now a safe haven for liberals. They flock to it and it turns away more qualified conservatives. Academia goes hand-in-hand with liberal big government spending voter tax dollars. It is hard to be a Republican these days and therefore the strain likely shows in their faces. It is hard because the skyrocketing growth of fatherless offspring has entrenched the dysfunction of compensation. The fatherless generation is emotionally weak and therefore too willing to be pampered/taken-care-of by the state and the fatherless political leader endeavors to spend all the tax money to provide the "father" they never had. Look at Clinton and Obama. No fathers. They are emotional wrecks and compensate by thinking they know best for everyone. Oh, and, stop nitpicking the who/whom democrat/democratic choices. The meaning "payload" is the same with either choice. This is not true for other pairs like disinterested/uninterested. You can nitpick that one.

    Link to this
  36. 36. vebiltdervan 3:24 pm 02/3/2010

    This result is of little use by itself, reported as it is without any details on, & analysis of, the degree of correlation.

    How successful were the affiliation IDs viewers made? 55%? 95%?

    The value (or danger) of the result lies in these sorts of details.

    Link to this
  37. 37. jaydee 3:36 pm 02/3/2010

    Can they e tell if AL Gore is exageratingglobal warming? I can….

    Link to this
  38. 38. starkfx 5:48 pm 02/3/2010

    Did anyone else notice this minor isssue: Likeable and Trustworthy or Dominant and Mature are not necessarily linked pairs, nor is any combination of the four traits in any proportion easy to rule out apriori. Yet, we all manage to categorize everyone into one of two mutually exclusive categories.
    Aside from this complaint, there does seem to be a real human ability to determine at least some characteristics of personality from nothing more than physical appearance.

    Link to this
  39. 39. Professor Ferret 10:45 pm 02/3/2010

    Aw come on-everyone knows Republicans look more like rats than Democrats and they are part of the reason we have so many ugly kids running around in a daze!
    :)

    Link to this
  40. 40. Professor Ferret 10:46 pm 02/3/2010

    Aw come on-everyone knows Republicans look more like rats than Democrats and they are part of the reason we have so many ugly kids running around in a daze!
    :)

    Link to this
  41. 41. jack.123 1:26 am 02/4/2010

    Clearly the suit and haircut make the man.The man on the right is better dressed and cut.Why do you think John Edwards paid 400 dollars for a haircut,but once the facts are known it doesn’t make any differance.You don’t have to be a Republican to be a rat.

    Link to this
  42. 42. Azheera 1:19 pm 02/5/2010

    I wonder why they didn’t try to determine those who are freedom loving libertarians from the Dem/Rep groups, I really believe that if people are given a choice between freedom and government control that the vast majority will choose freedom, but no one ever studies that.

    Link to this

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