Are you voting for the more attractive candidate to represent your district in Congress? Are you backing Barack Obama for president because you prefer the sound of his voice to that of Mitt Romney’s? According to an article in Scientific American, you may not think you are, but issues of policy and political affiliation may well be polite fictions that your conscious mind tells itself while it carries out decisions you made without ever realizing it.
A new book by Leonard Mlodinow, titled Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior suggests that much of our decision-making about public figures happens offstage, out of reach of the practical concerns of the conscious mind.
Mlodinow’s research suggests that voters prefer politicians with deeper voices. Deep voices convey a sense of confidence, whereas the sound of a higher pitched voice conveys to listeners a sense of nervousness, a lack of empathy and even a tendency toward dishonesty, according to the book. Looks, however, may override everything.
Princeton University psychologist Alexander Todorov and his colleagues asked volunteers to rate politicians for “competence” based on black-and-white head shots of the 600 candidates for the House of Representatives and the 95 candidates for U.S. Senate in the 2000, 2002 and 2004 elections. Results found that candidates rated “more competent” based on appearance alone won 67 percent of the House races and 72 percent of the Senate contests.
Similar testing done before the 2006 elections of Senate and gubernatorial candidates produced another 72 percent success rate for choosing Senate winners and a 69 percent success rate picking gubernatorial candidates based on appearance alone.
Scientific American presented as an example the famous televised debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon during the presidential race of 1960. Kennedy, fresh from campaigning in California was tanned and golden before the cameras, whereas Nixon, who shunned his advisers’ attempts to polish him up for television, came across as pale and tense under the lights, his heavy five o’clock shadow making him look rumpled and unkempt.
Polling done after the debate gave a startling result. ”According to a study published in the trade journal Broadcasting, those who saw the debate thought Kennedy won, whereas those who heard it gave Nixon the nod.” Radio listeners ceded the debate to Nixon, in theory because his deep, resonant voice contrasted so sharply with Kennedy’s clipped, higher voice with its upper-crust New England overtones. On television, however, Kennedy looked calm, handsome and in control, leading to TV viewers naming him the winner.
Our impressions, these findings suggest, hinge a great deal on our perceptions of candidates’ superficial traits. The mission of the voter, said Scientific American is to “try to override your predictably irrational propensity to succumb to these influences and engage your rational brain to vote the issues and not the person.”
David Ferguson is an editor at Raw Story. He was previously writer and radio producer in Athens, Georgia, hosting two shows for Georgia Public Broadcasting and blogging at Firedoglake.com and elsewhere. He is currently working on a book.
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