Washington, October 30 : A team of researchers from three American educational institutions has found that voting decisions are more associated with the brain's response to negative aspects of a politician's appearance than to positive ones.
Research collaborators from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), Scripps College, Princeton University, and the University of Iowa say that this seems to be true particularly when voters have little or no information about a politician aside from their physical appearance.
Michael Spezio, an assistant professor of psychology at Scripps College and visiting associate at Caltech, and Antonio Rangel, an associate professor of economics at Caltech, examined brain activation in subjects looking at the faces of real politicians.
The researchers used a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner to obtained high-resolution images of brain activation as volunteers made decisions about politicians based solely on their pictures. None of the subjects was familiar with the politicians whose images they viewed.
The research team conducted two independent studies using different groups of volunteers viewing the images of different politicians. Volunteers were shown pairs of photos, each with a politician coupled with their opponent in a real election in 2002, 2004, or 2006.
In some experiments, the volunteers had to make character-trait judgments about the politicians, such as which of them looked more competent to hold congressional office, or which looked more likely to physically threaten the volunteer.
In other experiments, volunteers were asked to cast their vote for one politician in the pair.
The researcher observed that the results correlated with actual election outcomes, as politicians who were thought to look the most physically threatening in the experiment were more likely to have actually lost their elections in real life.
They said that the correlation held true even when volunteers saw the politicians' pictures for less than one tenth of a second.
The team revealed that the pictures of politicians who lost elections, both in the lab and in the real world, were associated with greater activation in key brain areas known to be important for processing emotion.
According to them, their findings suggest that negative evaluations based only on a politician's appearance have some effect on real election outcomes, and that they may influence which candidate will lose an election.
"The results from our two studies suggest that intangibles like a candidate's appearance may work preferentially, or more uniformly, via negative motives, and by means of brain processing contributing to such negative evaluations," says Michael Spezio, the lead author on the study.
"It's important to note that the brain region most closely associated with seeing pictures of election losers, known as the insula, is known to be important in processing both negative and positive emotional evaluations. Its increased activation in response to the appearance of election losers is consistent with its association with negative emotional evaluations in several domains, including the sight of someone who looks disgusted or untrustworthy," Spezio says.
Study coauthor R. Michael Alvarez, a professor of political science at Caltech and codirector of the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project, adds: "Candidates try to evoke emotional reactions when they campaign for office, and this research gives us a new perspective on how much emotions might matter, and how they might matter, in terms of how voters view candidates."
The researchers were surprised to see that negative evaluations, such as the perception that a candidate is threatening, influence election loss significantly more than positive evaluations like attractiveness influence election success.
An article describing the research has been published in the online edition of the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.