WITH THE 2012 PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION looming on the horizon in November, consider these two crucial questions: Who looks more competent, Barack Obama or Mitt Romney? Who has the deepest and most resonant voice? Maybe your answer is, “Who cares? I vote for candidates based on their policies and positions, not on how they look and sound!” If so, that very likely is your rational brain justifying an earlier choice that your emotional brain made based on these seemingly shallow criteria.
Before the election, I urge you to read Leonard Mlodinow’s new book, Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior (Pantheon). You will gain insights such as that higherpitched voices are judged by subjects as more nervous and less truthful and empathetic than speakers with lower-pitched voices, and that speaking a little faster and louder and with fewer pauses and greater variation in volume leads people to judge someone to be energetic, intelligent and knowledgeable. Looks matter even more. One study presented subjects with campaign flyers featuring black-and-white photographs of models posing as Democrats or Republicans in fictional congressional races; half looked able and competent, whereas the other half did not, as rated by volunteers before the experiment. The flyers included the candidate’s name, party afiliation, education, occupation, political experience and three position statements. To control for party preference, half the subjects were shown the more suitablelooking candidate as a Democrat, and the other half saw him as a Republican. Results: 59 percent of the vote went to the candidate with the more capable appearance regardless of other qualifications. A similar study in a mock election resulted in a 15-percentage- point advantage for the more authoritative-looking politician.
Right…And you know what else, Dr Shermer? You know who usually doesn’t have the deepest and most resonant voice? Women. You know who usually doesn’t “look more competent”? Women. You know who has higherpitched voices that will be judged as more nervous and less truthful and empathetic than speakers with lower-pitched voices? Women. You know what pronoun appears in this sentence –
To control for party preference, half the subjects were shown the more suitablelooking candidate as a Democrat, and the other half saw him as a Republican.
The male one.
Do you see what I’m getting at, Dr Shermer? I’m sure you do, now that I’ve pointed it out. But do you see its relevance to you, yourself? That I’m not so confident about. Probably because I’m a woman, and I have a higherpitched voice.