How Looks Matter in Politics

And what people really mean when they say Romney looks "presidential."

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Barack Obama and John Boehner (Getty Images News)

In presidential politics, does it help to look like Mitt Romney? Or, put another way, how much does Newt Gingrich's face hurt him? Slate is asking today.

It turns out that physical appearance does matter in our assessment of politicians, but in ways that are more complicated than you might imagine. Perhaps most interesting (and most confusing when it comes to how much the Tea Party loved Herman Cain for a minute there), research suggests that we like politicians who physically remind us of ourselves.

Read a few excerpts here:

The competent face shape is masculine but approachable, with a square jaw, high cheekbones, and large eyes. When people say Romney just looks presidential, this is the image they’re summoning.

Todorov and other psychologists believe that otherwise expressionless faces can appear to show emotion based on how they’re formed -- the shape of the eyebrows can suggest anger, for instance, while a long distance between the eyes and the mouth can suggest sadness.

[S]ubjects most likely to rely on assessments of competence from a face alone are voters who don’t know much about politics but watch a lot of television. In other words, they’re the folks most likely to see images of the candidates, even if they’re not taking in information about those candidates, and even if they’re switching the channel the instant presidential debates come on.

In a 2008 study, Stanford University actually morphed images of unfamiliar political candidates with pictures of their lab subjects, unbeknownst to their subjects. The effect was subtle, maintaining the basic look of the candidate, with just a hint of the subject’s face superimposed on it. As researchers expected, subjects preferred the image of the candidate morphed with their own picture. They didn’t recognize their own faces, but on some level they recognized something familiar and similar to themselves. And in politics, it seems, familiarity breeds attraction.

Read more at Slate.

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