How to pick a leader?

Study after study has shown that our voting decisions are based not on rational deliberation, but on instinctive biases over which we have little control, such as whether or not we like a politician’s face. And the traditional theory about political leaders—that the best ones are defined by personality traits like confidence and decisiveness—is largely false. Social psychologists have shown that the leaders likely to achieve most in office are those who reflect the social identities of their followers: a very different notion to the one that guides most people’s hand in the voting booth.

Recent research is challenging many long-held views about political leadership. And if we want our votes to count, we had better take note. Politicians have been exploiting our suggestibility for decades with image consultants and spin doctors.

In a study published in Science in February, John Antonakis and Olaf Dalgas at the University of Lausanne asked students to look at pairs of photographs of political candidates who had run against each other in the 2002 French elections, and judge which of the two was more competent. They found that in 72 per cent of cases, the students picked the politician who had won the seat, suggesting that voters are strongly persuaded by facial appearance. This would not be so worrying if faces held useful clues about a person’s competence or intelligence, but there is little evidence that they do. Worse, research by Alexander Todorov at Princeton University shows that we tend to make up our minds about a person’s character—how likeable, trustworthy, competent and aggressive they are—within a tenth of a second of seeing their face. Once made, these snap judgements are hard to shift.

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