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Who 'Looks' Like a Politician? It's Different in US and China

Who would you vote for? Researchers say a picture alone goes a long way toward choosing. (Photo courtesy of University of Delaware)

What does a leader look like?

A new study finds that Americans choose leaders who look like they'll get things done, while Chinese want someone who appears good at getting along.

It's cultural, the researchers say.

Independent-minded Americans may value the appearance of competence above all else. But in Asian societies, people are more interdependent. Maintaining social harmony might be more important than accomplishing tasks.

The study is another example of how we're shallower than we might like to think.

In a democracy, voters should be choosing candidates based on ability.

"You'd think, ideally, that a person's appearance wouldn't matter, at least for politics," said psychologist Christopher Olivola at Carnegie Mellon University. "Dating, maybe, but not politics."

Looks matter

But looks do matter, as scientists are discovering. The new study is one of a growing body of research in which subjects compare photographs or short video clips of competing candidates they have never seen before. Subjects choose which one they think is more intelligent, trustworthy, and so on.

Given no other information, the candidate who subjects say looks more competent wins the election with surprising regularity: 70 percent of the time in one landmark study. Even more surprising, subjects saw candidates' photos for just one second in that experiment.

But those studies were done in the United States. The authors of the new study wondered if there might be cultural differences in what people want their leaders to look like. Would Asians be as persuaded by a competent-looking face? Americans are individualistic.

In collectivistic Asia, maybe competence — the ability to get things done — is less important than the ability to get along with people. The researchers call that trait "social competence."

Taiwan results

So they showed pictures of competing politicians from the United States and Taiwan to students from the University of Delaware in the U.S. and Fuzhou University in China. The students rated the politicians on a number of traits. The researchers compared those results to who actually won the elections.

Sure enough, looking more competent than your opponent was more important for the American candidates than for those in Taiwan, while looking more socially competent was more important for the Taiwanese candidates than the Americans.

"The effects ranged from small to moderately strong" by the somewhat arcane metrics of statistical correlation, said lead author Fang Fang Chen. But they can make a difference in a close election, she added. "In real-life situations, the [size of the] effect is often small but very meaningful."

Looks in general were more important for the American candidates. Appearing competent had a bigger impact on their likelihood of winning than appearing socially competent did for the Taiwanese candidates.

Does that mean Chinese people are less shallow than Americans? Maybe.

"In Chinese culture, the teaching is, do not rely on first impressions," Chen said.

There's a Chinese proverb, "Distance will test a horse's strength; time will determine a person's character," she notes.

"Or it could be that they're superficial for other cues," Olivola added. "Who knows."

The research doesn't answer that question.

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    Steve Baragona

    Steve Baragona is an award-winning multimedia journalist covering science, environment and health.

    He spent eight years in molecular biology and infectious disease research before deciding that writing about science was more fun than doing it. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a master’s degree in journalism in 2002.

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