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Whom Do We Fear Or Trust?

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Whom Do We Fear Or Trust? (8/5/08)
A pair of Princeton psychology researchers has developed a computer program that allows scientists to analyze better than ever before what it is about certain human faces that makes them look either trustworthy or fearsome.

In doing so, they have also found that the program allows them to construct computer-generated faces that display the most trustworthy or dominant faces possible.

Such work could have implications for those who care what effect their faces may have upon a beholder, from salespeople to criminal defendants, the researchers said.

There's another category of people who have a similar concern – politicians. Hmmm... salespeople, criminal defendants, politicians... lots in common there, no? What's missing from this list... preachers, TV political pundits, military officers... pretty long list.

Unfortunately, we haven't figured out how to run any large society, much less a modern one, without government and government officials, so we're stuck with politicians for some time to come, I'd guess. Well, at least that provides political scientists and researchers into aberrant psychology something to keep busy with.

The research described in the press release above isn't directly about politicians, but it's a sequel to work of the principal investigator (Alexander Todorov) that is:

Who Will Win An Election? Snap Judgments Of Face To Gauge Competence Usually Enough (10/22/07)
A split-second glance at two candidates' faces is often enough to determine which one will win an election, according to a Princeton University study.

Princeton psychologist Alexander Todorov has demonstrated that quick facial judgments can accurately predict real-world election returns. Todorov has taken some of his previous research that showed that people unconsciously judge the competence of an unfamiliar face within a tenth of a second, and he has moved it to the political arena.

His lab tests show that a rapid appraisal of the relative competence of two candidates' faces was sufficient to predict the winner in about 70 percent of the races for U.S. senator and state governor in the 2006 elections.

Other reports on this research: here, here.

Duh. At first glance all he's saying is that people tend to make snap judgments about a candidate's competence... and those candidates go on to win the election. That's not surprising, especially if one hypothesizes that voters tend not to go much beyond their snap judgment. And perhaps that is a valid conclusion, though hardly a welcome one.

In fact, Todorov had already published research showing that people make snap judgments about trustworthiness of people in general:

Snap Judgments Decide A Face's Character, Psychologist Finds (8/22/06)
We may be taught not to judge a book by its cover, but when we see a new face, our brains decide whether a person is attractive and trustworthy within a tenth of a second, according to recent Princeton research.

Princeton University psychologist Alex Todorov has found that people respond intuitively to faces so rapidly that our reasoning minds may not have time to influence the reaction -- and that our intuitions about attraction and trust are among those we form the fastest.

OK, if Todorov's research is sound, people make snap judgments about whom they will trust or fear. So it would be useful to know more precisely what factors those judgments are based on. His latest research has tried to do just that. Quoting again from the latest press release:
Based on this data, the scientists found that humans make split-second judgments on faces on two major measures -- whether the person should be approached or avoided and whether the person is weak or strong.

From there, using a commercial software program that generates composites of human faces (based on laser scans of real subjects), the scientists asked another group of test subjects to look at 300 faces and rate them for trustworthiness, dominance and threat. Common features of both trustworthiness and dominance emerged. A trustworthy face, at its most extreme, has a U-shaped mouth and eyes that form an almost surprised look.

An untrustworthy face, at its most extreme, is an angry one with the edges of the mouth curled down and eyebrows pointing down at the center. The least dominant face possible is one resembling a baby's with a larger distance between the eyes and the eyebrows than other faces. A threatening face can be obtained by averaging an untrustworthy and a dominant face.

This is all rather discouraging. What is not addressed (yet) is how accurate such snap judgments are, especially as regards trustworthiness and competence of political candidates.

It's hardly as though perspicacious people haven't been thinking about such issues for a very long time, of course. If I knew Plato better, I'm sure there'd be some choice observations in there somewhere to cite. Sort of goes along with what he said about the kind of judgments of reality made by people who can observe only shadows on the walls of a cave.

But another astute observer of human nature did have something to say about judging the intentions of people just from studying faces:

There's no art
To find the mind's construction in the face
He was a gentleman on whom I built
An absolute trust.

(Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 4. This is spoken by King Duncan, regarding the Thane of Cawdor, who has just been executed for treason. Macbeth enters right after this remark, and Duncan makes him the new Thane. Slow learner, that Duncan.)

Interestingly, one of Todorov's conclusions is that the kind of face people find most trustworthy is one that features, basically, a smile. Here's Shakespeare's take on that, in words he gives to Hamlet:

O villain, villain, smiling, damn├Ęd villain!
My tables—meet it is I set it down
That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain
(Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 5)

I have addressed previous similar studies along the same lines (by other investigators) here and here.

Discouraging? Yes. Especially so if this research were to accurately describe most of the electorate. But perhaps it would be better to look at whether there are subsets of the electorate that behave quite differently. Perhaps it would work to divide the (potential) electorate into those who have at least some interest in and knowledge of politics and government, and those who don't and basically don't give a damn.

In particular, there is some evidence that "undecided" voters, those who can't make up their minds until just before voting (if they vote at all) don't simply have a difficult time making a careful judgment. Instead, many "undecideds" are actually "low-information" voters, who don't follow politics very closely, and don't especially enjoy the process. Here are some (obviously partisan) anecdotal observations on this from the 2004 election.

If this is correct, then we can write off maybe 40-50% of the potential electorate as a random factor which is basically uninformed about and uninterested in details of politics and government. If they vote at all, their votes will be based largely on impressionistic factors of appearance, charisma, or group identity – snap judgments from the physical appearance of candidates, perhaps. Although many of them won't vote, those that do might make up perhaps 10% of the total, and they are fully capable of swinging any election in one direction or another.

It is often said that a deciding factor in the 1960 presidential election was that in the first televised debate between Kennedy and Nixon, the latter was recovering from illness, looked weak, and had a decided 5 o'clock shadow. Nixon lost the popular vote by only 120,000 votes. Given how things turned out after Nixon came back to win the office in 1968, the judgments people made in 1960 may not have been so bad. But still such judgments seem like little more than a coin toss.

Further reading:

Poli Psy? – September 2000 online Scientific American article about the "shallowness" of criteria some voters use in voting decisions

The functional basis of face evaluation – June 2008 research article in PNAS about the research described in the first-mentioned press release

Inferences of Competence from Faces Predict Election Outcomes – June 2005 research article in Science by Todorov et al on the relationship between neotenous appearance and perceived competence

Appearance DOES Matter – June 2005 commentary in Science on the preceding article

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