Who are you going to vote for in November to become the next President of the United States? Will your decision be based on issues that are most important to you? Will it be based on the candidate’s experience and intelligence?
Or, do you find that you are leaning toward a certain candidate because you feel they look the most presidential? You may be surprised to learn that a large number of us do just that – we unwittingly cast our vote for someone simply based on their superficial traits and the feelings she/he give us rather than their stance on issues. This is very easy to do in our fast-paced, image-focused society.
Let’s step back in time to the very first televised presidential debate to see the powerful role that a candidate’s appearance — and the media — can have on election results. In 1960, an astounding 77 million Americans tuned in to this ground-breaking first debate in a series between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. On their screens, Kennedy appeared well-rested, fit and tanned, and he was wearing a dark-blue suit that contrasted nicely with the gray background of the set. Whereas Nixon, exhausted from two weeks of campaigning and dealing with a severe knee injury, looked sickly, sweaty and pale, and his light gray suit blended into the background. Additionally, Kennedy looked directly at the camera while answering questions, while Nixon looked to the side to address the reporters who posed the questions.
The really interesting part about this was that most of the people who listened to the debate on the radio said that Nixon was the winner or that it was a tie between the two candidates. However, Kennedy was proclaimed the clear victor among those who watched the debate on television. After winning the presidency, Kennedy admitted that he probably wouldn’t have won the election without those debates, and Nixon that he “should have remembered that ‘a picture is worth a thousand words.’”
… a large number of us do just that – we unwittingly cast our vote for someone simply based on their superficial traits and the feelings she/he give us rather than their stance on issues. This is very easy to do in our fast-paced, image-focused society.
Through studying this event, scholars and political analysts realized the powerful impact that a politician’s physical appearance and body language can have on public opinion. Since then, many research studies have found that candidates who “look the part” – who appear more attractive and capable in their television footage – are more likely to win elections. Sadly, according to researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), people who are less informed about politics (often called “low-information voters” in the research) are especially likely to vote for a candidate simply based on the way they appear in the media.
Unfortunately, news coverage that focuses on a negative aspect of a candidate’s appearance leads voters to question that candidate’s professionalism and rate them less favorably than their opponent(s). Indeed, study after study has found that voters’ views are influenced by the superficial traits of candidates focused on in the news. For example, take New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a politician who has been stigmatized in the media because of his weight. In a study of Christie’s media coverage, researchers found that little was said about his stance on the issues and much was said about his size. When one is called “a fat slab of bacon” and “a ticking time bomb,” voters will inevitably consider that candidate less fit for office.¹
We also rely on body language to make judgements about political candidates. Does the candidate appear happy and reassuring with a smile or relaxed mouth position? Does he or she have good posture or are they slumped over or leaning? Do they look directly and confidently at the camera and/or look people in the eye when talking to them, or do they look up, down, or to the side?
For instance, Ronald Regan, called “the great communicator” by many, benefited immensely from his positive body language (check out his posture, confidence, and smile in this clip from his 1980 debate with Jimmy Carter). Al Gore, in the 2000 election, was also shown using more positive body language in the news media than George W. Bush. And though Gore lost the election, research found that his body language made viewers feel he was more caring, knowledgeable and a stronger leader.
When people watch news stories that show shots of candidates’ negative body language (e.g., bending over, frowning, folding their arms, looking to the side, etc.), viewers tend to feel more anger and fear related to those candidates and to rate them as less trustworthy and out of touch. Amazing how powerful these forms of nonverbal communication are in the world of politics, don’t you think? Unfortunately, research clearly shows that we voters sometimes make assessments about how a candidate will perform simply from their body language in televised shots of them (see Image Bite Politics: News and the Visual Framing of Elections for more information).
Dear Darling readers, let us take these studies to heart as we rapidly approach this year’s presidential election. We can recognize the tendencies we have to size others up based on physical appearance and body language and remember that each image and clip we see in the media has been edited and strategically picked for the story being shared. This election, rather than getting taken in by edited clips and flashy visuals that elicit certain emotions and thoughts about candidates, let’s take some time to think about what issues are the most important to us and cast our votes for the individual who will make decisions that support our views.
What forms your opinion of politics and politicians? Has it been challenged during this election?
Images via Aysegül Karatekin
1. An excessive focus on a candidate’s beauty or sexuality can also negatively impact their election results. For instance, scholars found that Sarah Palin’s objectification (treating a person as a thing or an object) by the media through an excessive focus on her physical appearance and attractiveness, led people to rate her less competent, less fit for the vice presidency and less moral. This makes sense as research shows that focus on the appearance and sexuality of a woman is objectifying and reduces perceptions of the woman’s competence, likability, trustworthiness and sincerity.