Study finds voting is superficial (REAL voting, not 'American Idol' voting)

Every vote counts, it's true. But where are voters getting the motivation to decide how to vote? What leading criteria determine who and what the voters choose to pull the levers for? (OK, nowadays, voters fill in little ovals with a pen or pencil, or complete arrows with a drawn line, but that's not as quaint as "pull the levers".) 

In the June 2010 edition of a behavior journal, it was suggested that appearances win. So the average person picks their candidates the way producers pick reality TV group members: on the shallowness of outward appearance. No surprise to me, "appearance is most likely to influence less knowledgeable voters who watch a lot of television," explains a science Web site,, in their piece on the behavior journal's article.  

I've voted for county, city or state positions when I had no idea who one candidate was from another. I've picked based on last names, or party, or if a name appealed to me in some way, like it rhymed, or looked classy, or seemed down to earth. Yeah, I'm not proud of any of that, but I know I am not alone in such banal decision-making among people who reject apathy. I've since avoided choosing at all if I had no clue; choices matter, and gross ignorance is not where votes should come from. It's not just the ignorance I demonstrated, but notable, commonplace stuff that translates into votes. 

How many of us, the electorate (note for habitually ignorant folks: that's a word for "people who can vote"), are sure we knew something useful and reliable about every single ballot choice in recent primaries? How about in the 2008 general election? So in part this behavior article tells us that in the 2008 U.S. presidential election the least informed chose between a fresh, young, silver-tongued black guy, and a crippled, raspy old white guy who's been around forever. 

Who were these people, do you think? First of all, who are the least informed, broadly? Second of all, how do you think they would vote? The young and generally distracted is who they are, and they would vote young and not crippled (crass kids do not care how shallow it is to mock a war veteran or any other stiff old guy, get real), don't you think? Most young punks would go for the fresh young black dude. Unless they've bought a Pat Boone album lately. Odds on that, anyone?

Am I saying Barack Obama, for one, is president in part because clueless young adults voted against the crusty old crippled guy? Am I saying that plenty of young people voted for the candidate that The Daily Show's Jon Stewart liked, and for the side who SNL didn't lampoon nearly every week? 

Youuuuu betcha!

Are voters truly sophisticated and rational decision makers? Apparently not. Their choices are heavily influenced by superficial, nonverbal cues, such as politicians' appearance, according to Christopher Olivola from University College London in the UK and Alexander Todorov from Princeton University in the US. According to their findings, voters make judgments about politicians' competence based on their facial appearance and these appearance-based competence judgments reliably predict both voting decisions and election outcomes. The research is published in the June 2010 issue of theJournal of Nonverbal Behavior.

The researchers also discuss the potential impact of these judgments on actual voters and show that appearance is most likely to influence less knowledgeable voters who watch a lot of television, a finding consistent with psychological models of persuasion.

Research to date suggests that rapid judgments about the personality traits of political candidates, based solely on their appearance, can predict their electoral success. In other words, voters rely heavily on appearances when choosing which candidate to elect. Since voters need to navigate their way through the flood of information available about candidates in order to make fully informed choices, it is no surprise that they take mental shortcuts to get to their final decision.

After reviewing the published literature on this topic, the authors then introduce a computer model of facial personality traits to identify the particular facial features associated with competence judgments. By manipulating the degree of competence of faces on a screen, they are able to show that facial maturity and physical attractiveness are the two main criteria used by participants to make competence judgments.

(Hit the link, above, to see the whole article.)

- jR
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