Children Can Predict the Outcomes of Elections Simply by Looking at Candidates’ Faces

We are far more influenced by appearances in our electoral decision-making than we like to admit


Children Can Predict the Outcomes of Elections Simply by Looking at Candidates’ Faces

On both sides of the Atlantic the battlegrounds are being drawn for political leadership battles. In the U.S., the first candidates for the presidential nominations are coming forward in preparation for the 2016 presidential race. Across the pond, the dust has settled from the British general election and the contest for leadership of the Labour Party has begun; only months after the campaign of the leader of the opposition, Ed Miliband, was mired by one image, an unflattering photograph of the Labour leader eating a bacon sandwich.

The British press, known for its cynical and appearance-obsessed tabloid culture, debated at length whether Miliband was an appropriate “face” to lead the country, based largely on said image of said bacon sandwich. The campaign resulted in a backlash as Labour supporters rallied to rescue Miliband’s image. An alien peering down on the last few days of the British general election might have been forgiven for thinking they were observing some kind of twisted beauty-pageant-meets-sandwich-eating-contest.

We like to think that we have the ability to look beyond appearance and charisma to issues of political importance when deciding who would be the best person to run our country, but evidence from psychology suggests, worryingly, that this is far from the case.

In 2008, in a paper published in Scienceresearchers asked a group of 681 Swiss children aged 13 and below, to look at photographs of faces and select which people they would choose to be the captain of their ship in a game re-enacting Odysseus’ trip from Troy to Ithaca. What the children didn’t know is that the photos weren’t of sailors, but of political hopefuls in a French parliamentary election.

The experiment was well-controlled using run-off ballots from the second round, in which two candidates compete for one seat. The experiment used only pairs in which the loser was the incumbent to ensure that the losers weren’t particularly incompetent looking — after all, they had previously won the election, so they must have been credible candidates. Pairs of candidates with confounding factors that might have influenced the children’s decision were excluded, for example if the candidates differed in race or gender.

In an astounding 71 percent of cases, the children’s guesses of who would make the best ship captain correctly predicted the election results. When 680 adults were shown the same photos, their competency ratings correctly predicted the true outcome 72 percent of the time! Remember, these were Swiss adults and young Swiss children with little reason to have any knowledge whatsoever of French politicians — all famous politicians were excluded from the analysis, so if appearance were not a factor in how we vote, then there should be no reason for the children’s guesses to be any different from chance.

As an added bonus the researchers showed the same children pairs of photos of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and Obama and John McCain. The children correctly predicted the outcomes of both the Democratic nomination and the last US presidential election.

Another study, published in 2005 also in Science, involved participants rating the competence of candidates for the US Senate and House of Representatives based, again, on nothing but their facial appearance. The candidates whose face was rated by participants as more competent won in 71.6 percent of the Senate races and in 66.8 percent of the House races. The participants were still likely to guess correctly even when they were given just one second to make the judgment.

The results are worrying for obvious reasons, needless to say there is absolutely zero evidence that there is any correlation whatsoever between people’s facial appearance and their actual competence. If we were to base decisions about people solely on their faces, we’d be in a very bad place. As the researchers note, (Charles) Darwin recorded in his autobiography that: “he was almost denied the chance to take the historic Beagle voyage — the one that enabled the main observations of his theory of evolution — on account of his nose. Apparently, the captain did not believe that a person with such a nose would possess sufficient energy and determination.”

The evidence that we are incredibly fickle when it comes to making choices about who we vote for doesn’t stop there. As we recently explored on this blog, the “worm” that runs across the screen during televised political debates showing studio audience members’ reactions in real time has been shown to have the power to be the defining factor in who we think won a leadership debate, demonstrated by experiments in which researchers rigged the worm to favor one politician or another.

Sadly, it seems appearance and unconscious biases are far more important factors in our considerations than should be the case. So often in politics it seems there is a false choice, between a politician with good policies but without charisma and with charisma but without good policies. If only there were more with both. Changing any of this is, of course, difficult, if not impossible, but one thing we can all do to help is remember in all our interactions that looks are not a reliable indicator of competence — even though we appear to be programmed to believe that they are.

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Image Credit: Shutterstock, The Sun Newspaper, BBC

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source:

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source:

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source:

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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