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How Elections Are Decided: Who Would You Choose as Captain of Your Boat?

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


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The 1960 Presidential election, in which Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts squared off against Vice President Richard Nixon, would usher in a new era in Presidential politics, thanks to the growing prevalence of television ownership. The so-called “Great Debates” – four of them – would be the first ever televised Presidential debates, and some have argued that they shifted public opinion in favor of Kennedy, who would go on to win the election.

In the weeks before the debate, Nixon suffered a knee injury and spent a couple weeks in the hospital. By the time the debate rolled around, he was still some twenty pounds underweight, meaning his clothes didn’t quite fit right. He apparently refused make-up, which could have added some much-needed color to his otherwise pale face. On the other hand, the younger Kennedy had spent the weeks leading up to the debate campaigning in sunny California, leaving him with a nice tan.

Among those who listened on the radio, as they had all previous Presidential debates, Nixon was perceived the winner. However, the 70 million Americans who watched the debate on TV proclaimed Kennedy the winner. Don Hewitt, producer and director of the debate, remarked that Kennedy was “looking tan and fit…this guy was a matinee idol.” Of Nixon, he said that he looked “like death warmed over,” and that he appeared “in pain, looked green, sallow, needed a shave.”

Clearly, looks mattered. Even in the grainy, black-and-white, low-definition broadcast television of the 1960s.

And this should not come as any real surprise. Campaign advisers know this. They spend hours upon hours (and dollars to match!) considering the visual appearance of their candidate. What sort of haircut will he or she sport? What brand of sunglasses? Blue tie or red tie? Blue suit or grey suit? Sleeves rolled up or down?

Despite the apparent importance of appearance in determining election outcomes, journalists still spend precious time dissecting each word of the candidates’ statements and official positions. Surely, despite the attention paid to looks, voters still pay attention to the issues. Right? Or is the endless discussion of values and experience just window-dressing? Are we playing pretend, making believe that elections are determined by careful consideration of candidate perspectives and promises?

A few years ago, John Antonakis and Olaf Dalgas, both of the University of Lausanne in Switzerland conducted a simple experiment to determine whether election results could really be explained primarily by superficial features.

The researchers gathered photos of the faces of candidates (winners and runners-up) from the 2002 French parliamentary elections. In one experiment, they showed the pairs of faces to more than 680 adults, and asked them to identify which one seemed more competent. Their competence ratings – based only on photos of the candidates’ faces – predicted actual election results 72% of the time.

That, however, is not the most surprising part of their study. In a second experiment, they showed the same sets of photos to 681 children between 5- and 13-years-old. They were told, “Imagine that you will now sail from Troy to Ithaca. Who would you choose as the captain of your boat?” The kids’ decisions correctly predicted actual election results 71% of the time!

Just for fun, the researchers also presented the children with paired photos of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, and of Obama and John McCain. The kids correctly predicted the outcomes of both the 2008 Democratic primary contest as well as the US Election.

The decision patterns among the adults and the children were statistically indistinguishable. In other words, the ability to predict which of two individuals would wind up as the winner of an election did not increase with age. This, despite the fact that adults ostensibly have more experience predicting and evaluating performance. “These findings,” Antonakis and Dalgas write, “suggest that voters are not appropriately weighting performance-based information on political candidates when undertaking one of democracy’s most important civic duties.”

So…who would you choose as the captain of your boat?

Antonakis J, & Dalgas O (2009). Predicting elections: child’s play! Science (New York, N.Y.), 323 (5918) PMID: 19251621

Images: Header photo via Wikimedia Commons/public domain. Obama portrait via Wikimedia Commons/Pete Souza. Romney portrait via Wikimedia Commons/Gage Skidmore. (Both portraits adapted by the author.)

Jason G. Goldman About the Author: Dr. Jason G. Goldman received his Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology at the University of Southern California, where he studied the evolutionary and developmental origins of the mind in humans and non-human animals. Jason is also an editor at ScienceSeeker and Editor of Open Lab 2010. He lives in Los Angeles, CA. Follow on . Follow on Twitter @jgold85.

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





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  1. 1. Quantumburrito 12:03 pm 10/25/2012

    Although Kennedy won that debate, I was impressed by how respectful and reasonable both candidates sounded. No vitriol or personal attacks, just statements of facts. Made me nostalgic, and I wasn’t even alive in 1960.

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  2. 2. TTLG 12:42 pm 10/25/2012

    I notice that the adaptations of the two candidates’ pictures includes a captain’s hat on Obama, but not on Romney. An attempt to sway the readers’ choice?

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  3. 3. bamw21 7:30 pm 10/25/2012

    Because the captain’s hat on Obama sits askew and is several sizes too small my first thought was that whoever decided to place it that way and have it of that size was making fun of the President. Whether I’m for or against him I think that’s wrong. He is, after all, still the President of the United States and should be treated respectfully.

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  4. 4. Bird/tree/dinosaur/etc. geek 8:04 pm 10/25/2012

    It’s probably just to indicate that Obama is currently the “captain”.

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  5. 5. Don Quixote 8:26 pm 10/25/2012

    Basis flaw in the premise: Captains are neither elected or chosen by the crew. They are appointed by a board of experienced current and former captains with years of experience in command. They base their choice(s) on, among other things, past command experience, demonstrated good judgement, and recognized potential to effectively command a ship of greater value (of some sort) than the last. Neither of these candidates holds up against any naval ship captain or even an Italian cruise ship skipper.

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