Voting: superficial and subconscious?

A picture may be worth a thousand votes, which was bad news for New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr.’s 2006 gubernatorial bid, some scientists said.

In a recent History Channel feature called “Secrets of Body Language,” they asserted that the rationale behind election outcomes — including DeStefano’s landslide defeat in 2006 and, potentially, in the race between Sen. McCain and Sen. Obama — may not be voting record or experience, but appearance and body language. Cognitive scientists in the show used photographs of DeStefano and Gov. M. Jodi Rell to illustrate that voters judge a candidate’s competency based on his or her looks.

DeStefano said he only caught parts of the History Channel special, including the segment that displayed his photograph alongside Rell’s, said City Hall spokeswoman Jessica Mayorga.

“It all depends on what photo they show of Jodi and what photo they show of me,” DeStefano said, according to Mayorga. “In some, I would win, and in others, she would win.”

Princeton scientist Alexander Todorov originally conducted the show’s study, titled “Predicting political elections from rapid and unreflective face judgments,” in 2007. In the study, 64 Princeton undergraduates were asked to look at pairs of photographs of real-life opposing candidates and choose which one they felt was more “competent.” Among these test photos were pictures of DeStefano and Rell, who appeared alongside one another.

According to Todorov’s study, the test subject’s choice for the more “competent” candidate correctly matched the outcome of the actual gubernatorial election 68.6 percent of the time, though the test subjects based their choices solely on viewing the candidate’s photo for a fraction of a second.

In 2006, 63 percent of Connecticut residents voted for Rell, while 35 percent voted for DeStefano in 2006.

At Georgetown University, assistant professor Yulia Dutton recreated the study with 30 students in 2008 for the filming of the History Channel special, and the results in her test were almost identical, she said. Approximately 70 percent of the Georgetown test subjects chose Rell as the more “competent” candidate.

“We make very quick decisions about candidates,” Dutton said in an interview. “Subsequent information that we learn about a candidate doesn’t alter our impression as substantially as we’d like to think.”

Yale cognitive scientist and professor John Bargh said he felt Todorov’s study has a lot of validity. Unconscious factors affect how a person formulates opinions about elected officials, he said.

“There’s a lot of information that people take out of faces,” Bargh said.

Other research has corroborated Todorov’s conclusions, Bargh said. People oftentimes vote differently on different issues depending on the setting in which they vote, he said. For example, people are more likely to vote for school reform if they are voting in a school building, or more likely to vote against abortion and gay marriage if they are casting their ballot in a church, he said.

The assertions made in “The Secrets of Body Language” come as presidential candidates McCain and Obama actively work to tailor every aspect of their appearances to convey a presidential image, according to body language expert Janine Driver, a commentator featured on the History Channel show.

In an interview, Driver said body language and image have been especially important during the recent presidential debates between McCain and Obama. Though Driver said she is indifferent to the political policies of both candidates, she said Obama looked significantly more “animated” and “dynamic” in his physical actions during the debates.

McCain, was “very stiff” and the tone of his voice was “monotone,” she said, but she maintained that McCain’s rigidity in movement and tone is an understandable product of his time in the military.

Driver suggested that McCain hire a voice coach to help him appeal to voters in a more warm and friendly manner.

Ninety-three percent of human communication is nonverbal, she said.

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