Social science conducts some very odd tests to try to figure out the motivations behind human behavior. While I still think literature is inherently more suitable to understanding the ways human emotions and desires work (they come in complicated mixtures — love mixed together with envy and anger, pity together with disgust and shame, fear together with excitement, etc.) scientific studies with their experiments and statistics — unlike literature — yield the comforting illusion that we can rationally understand our only partly rational selves.
Take this recent, startling study reported in Scientific American last week: With remarkable accuracy, a group of subjects was able to distinguish between Republican and Democratic candidates for the 2004 and 2006 Senate races simply by looking at black and white photographs of their faces. They were also able to tell, merely by looking at yearbook photographs, whether students were Republicans or Democrats.
I don’t know about you, but this takes me aback. A headshot alone reveals whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat? How can this be? The research concluded that when people saw faces they thought were “likeable and trustworthy,” they thought, “Democrat”; when they saw faces they thought looked “dominant and mature,” they thought, “Republican.”
Apparently, qualities of likeability, trustworthiness, maturity, etc., show up in photos of faces, and people reach conclusions about a person’s party affiliation based on these traits. The findings held true regardless of the gender of the person in the photograph (race doesn’t appear to have been part of the study). The authors of the study concluded that people possess “a general and imperfect” ability to figure out a person’s political affiliation based on facial appearance.
Now I’m no social scientist, but the first question I want answered is what the authors meant by “facial appearance” — especially as it shows up in a photograph (as opposed to real life). Certainly we all quickly and unconsciously assess people based on their looks (“lookism” is both a natural means of defense and an ugly social means of prejudgment and oppression of others). Without having to do studies, we all know that, all other things being equal, pretty people get further in life than plain ones. Of course, all other things are never equal, so many pretty people end up miserably unsuccessful and many plain people do just fine. But accurately telling a Democrat from a Republican based on nothing but the face? That still sounds mighty crazy.
Yet the more I think about it, the more it sounds not crazy, but reasonable — as long as it’s understood that looking at a headshot involves more than looking at features of the face. What a person “looks like” in a photograph includes a lot more than the sum of the features — the brow, eyes, eyebrows, nose, mouth, and shape of the chin. We also take in the ears, hair, skin, cheekbones, dimples, tiny moles, big moles, where the moles are, head shape, tilt of the head, neck, collar (if the person is wearing clothes) and hat, scarf, baldness or hair. And when I say hair, by the way, I mean hairdo — the way a person deliberately chooses to present (or sometimes hide) hair, or confront (or not confront) thinning hair or baldness. We experience all of this as a gestalt in which everything plays a part. Our first impressions about a person, judging by a photograph of the head, come about from the way all of this fits together, as a whole.
It strikes me that the hairdo of a person in a headshot is the real giveaway about that person’s political leanings. I have good “hairdar”-(my own neologism, to be sure, but the word should be permitted in Scrabble; it reveals what can be concluded about a person simply by looking at the hairdo). Hairdos are a fashion statement by themselves-regardless of clothes and entirely separate from facial features. They function as powerful signifiers of party affiliations-perhaps more than faces themselves. There’s no way someone with Margaret Thatcher’s hair could be a liberal, for example. Senator Dodd could never, ever be a Republican. Hillary’s famously ever-changing hairdo clearly goes on a Democrat’s head. (Admittedly, Ann Coulter and John Edwards are exceptional exceptions to all of this.)
Still, the study as I understand it, and as studies are wont to do, confirms something we already know. As we go about our lives, pretending we are acting reasonably and rationally, we remain happily oblivious to our multiple visual prejudices. We practice “lookism” all the time — especially when we encounter people we don’t know. Odd as it seems, then, headshots present clues about a person’s political affiliation. My own hunch is that the features of the face are only one small part of that evidence, however; I’ll put my real money on the hairdo.
When it comes to party affiliation, this study firmly reminds us that for all our attachment to arguing over politics, we vote mostly not with our brains, but with our eyes.