There’s some evidence that our preference for certain facial traits is situational. A British study compared images of George W. Bush and of John Kerry that had been blended with other faces in such a way that their basic face shape and features were maintained but the politicians themselves were no longer recognizable. Facing hypothetical elections, subjects preferred the Bush-like face during wartime, and the Kerry-like face during peacetime. The authors speculated that Bush’s face had more masculine and dominant characteristics, which subjects appeared to prefer during hawkish periods.
Taken all together, these new studies suggest that how a politician’s face appeals to voters, or doesn’t, can’t be boiled down to just one factor. Rather, voters look at a candidate and make a series of instant judgments based on a number of traits. Then, of course, in many cases, they listen to the candidate, they consider the issues, and they do all the things rational voters are supposed to do. Skin-deep inferences aren’t all that voters rely on, though they may have an outsized effect on the decision-making process.
“I tend to think that what happens is we get an emotional reaction to someone and that sets the stage for everything else, for the way we process information about them,” says Lee Budesheim, a psychologist at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., who has studied the impact of candidate attractiveness.