An old joke says if you want to know if a politician is lying, see if their lips are moving. New research shows that people can predict something about a politician’s honesty just by looking at them, but it’s not the lips they’re noticing.
A series of studies conducted by Caltech researchers show that when people are shown photos of politicians they’re not familiar with, they can make better-than-chance judgments about whether those politicians have been convicted of corruption. People can make these judgments even without knowing anything about the politicians or their careers. And one thing they seem to be picking up on is how wide the politicians’ faces are.
The individual people making these judgments do only very slightly better than if they were making a random guess (although the difference is statistically significant). However, the judgments become much more accurate when they are combined across a group of people.
Face wideness — technically, the facial width-to-height ratio — has been shown in previous research to be correlated with aggressive behavior in men. That is, men with wider faces have a greater tendency to be aggressive and threatening toward others than do men with thinner faces. Studies have also shown that wide-faced men are perceived by others to be more threatening than men with thinner faces.
The new Caltech study is the first to show that observers have a knack for picking out corrupt politicians based on just a portrait and that observers perceive politicians with wider faces as more corruptible.
“It might be difficult to understand why you can look at others’ faces and tell something about them,” says Chujun Lin, study co-author and Caltech graduate student. “But there is no doubt that people form first impressions from faces all the time. For example, on dating sites people often reject potential matches based on pictures without reading the profile.”
However, it’s important to note that the researchers are not claiming that politicians who look corruptible are inherently more corrupt than those who look honest. Their research shows a connection between facial appearance and corruption, but, they say, there could be many explanations. One possibility is that if a face conveys a sense of dishonesty, the politician might be offered bribes more often. Another possibility is that corruptible-looking politicians are not any more corruptible than honest-looking politicians, but because of their looks they are more often suspected of, investigated for, and convicted of corruption.
“If a jury is deciding whether or not a politician is guilty, having a corruptible-looking face might create a negative impression, which might influence the jury’s decision,” says Lin, who adds that the “clean” politicians used in the study might not actually be clean. “Maybe they just haven’t been caught.”
The study, which appears in the journal Psychological Science, consisted of four parts.
Part 1: The researchers collected pictures of 72 politicians who held office at the state or federal level. Half had been convicted of corruption and half had clean records. For consistency, all of the politicians included were male and Caucasian. All of the photos were black-and-white; cropped to the same size; and featured a frontal, smiling portrait. The images were presented randomly to 100 volunteers, who were asked to rate each politician on how corruptible, dishonest, selfish, trustworthy, and generous they looked.
An analysis of the data collected showed…