Why do people take an instant dislike to Ted Cruz?

Because it saves time, according to one former Bush administration official. But joking aside, it is quite extraordinary how so many people, including colleagues and acquaintances going all the way back to his college days, describe him as a totally unlikable person. Not only do they feel that way, they are all coming out of the woodwork to say so openly.

I dislike Cruz too and it is not just because I find his politics repulsive. I find that I feel a dislike for him personally even though I have never met him. There is something that I find vaguely creepy about Cruz’s face and expressions whenever he speaks. He oozes an almost palpable smarmy unctuous arrogance that I find repulsive even on the rare occasions when I find myself agreeing with him on something.

Psychologist Richrd E. Cytowic noticed that he too took an instinctive and visceral dislike to Cruz and, being a neurologist, wondered if there may be a basis for what seems like an irrational reaction. He thinks that it may lie in the way that the human brain has evolved to read faces and make snap judgments about people and Cruz’s problem is that his body (and facial) language do not match his words.

Our stone–age ancestors learned to read faces and rapidly tell friend from foe. While we live in a far different environment, we still possess the same stone–age brain as our distant relatives. Like them, we judge instantly. Automatically and more quickly than conscious reflection could manage, we weigh whether we like a new face or dislike the person behind it. Our social circuits, which are largely emotional, tell us whether to trust a person or not. Given a million years of practice, our brains are good at this.

Senator Cruz’s countenance doesn’t shift the way I expect typical faces to move.

I have rarely, if ever, seen a conventional smile from Senator Cruz. In a natural smile the corners of the mouth go up; these muscles we can control voluntarily as well. But muscles circling the eyes are involuntary only; they make the eyes narrow, forming crow’s feet at the outside corners. Even the Mona Lisa’s smile shows this. The eyes give away one’s game and let us tell forged from genuine smiles. Grandma may have told you to put on a happy face, but you can’t if it isn’t heartfelt.

No matter the emotional coloring of Senator Cruz’s outward rhetoric, his mouth typically tightens into the same straight line. If it deviates from this, the corners of his mouth bend down, not upwards. The outside of his eyebrows bend down, too, when he emotes, something so atypical that it disturbs me.

There’s more in the article.

So if you are disturbed by the fact that you too dislike Cruz without quite knowing why, you are not alone and it may not be as irrational as you think.


  1. Cuttlefish says

    I saw it earlier, but can’t quite remember where; apparently there is one of those wonderful combinatorial German words for “a face that demands punching”. Or close to that.

    And yes, the discussion was about Cruz.

  2. Jean says

    In French, it’s “tête à claques” (or “face à claques” in Quebec). And Ted Cruz definitely has one of those. It may not look as nice as the German version (which I don’t know and never seen) but it does have a nice ring to it when you say it the right way.

  3. wrp says


    I believe it was most recently reintroduced to American political discourse by Craig Mazin, who was Cruz’ roommate at Princeton.

  4. Ray Mansell says

    Long ago, I ran across someone like this at work -- for no apparent reason I just took an instant dislike to him. Less than six months later there was a reorganisation, and he became my manager. It did not work very well 🙁

    With Cruz, though, I find it’s even more visceral. Perhaps it’s just that aura of evil that seems to surround him.

  5. says

    It does make me wonder how he got where he is if he is so disliked. Usually folks have to have at least some charisma to get anywhere, either in business or in politics.

  6. says

    Interesting. I usually give people with an off-putting face the benefit of the doubt, giving them time to prove themselves, because I don’t trust my gut reaction. But maybe I’ve been more reasonable than I thought.

    (I gave Stephen Harper about thirty seconds grace, in which to prove himself. My gut was screaming.)

  7. hexidecima says

    I’m a little confused with something the article says. How are the muscles around the eyes “involuntary”? I can narrow my eyes with no problem.

  8. lorn says

    I was thinking abut this a while back. Cruz triggers a visceral reaction. I feel revulsion and disgust. I feel like I need to wash my hands, with bleach.

    Looking at pictures of him I noticed the seeming contradiction of components of his countenance:

    His eyebrows beg for undeserved pity and forgiveness like a puppy caught chewing a shoe. I half expect he is going to start to tremble and might wet himself if someone yelled at him.

    His mouth halfheartedly fakes warmth when he take conscious control but when he doesn’t think anyone is watching it often gives the game away with a condescending smirk if things are going his way. Or barely hidden anger when things aren’t going his way

    His eyes seem to be cycle between passionate condescending superiority and unbridled contempt for the audience.

    His body language is mainly the peculiar woodenness of someone who forces himself to relax combined with contrived gestures straight out of a seminary lecture on how to punctuate a sermon.

    The presentation is of someone begging and whining but with a subtext of contempt and superiority to the audience.

    His language is also peculiar in that Cruz isn’t present in his own argument. He presents his argument as if speaking for, and under the authority of, others. There is very little Ted Cruz in his argument. As if he was being compelled to make the argument. As if implying that he wouldn’t normally be so bold as to introject but the danger of the situation has forced him to speak up … for the good of the nation … as informed by God.

  9. Mano Singham says

    hexidecima @#9,

    It’s more than just narrowing the eyes. I think that he is saying that genuine smiles automatically trigger a particular kind of narrowing around the eyes that fake smiles don’t.

    I tried a fake smile and my eyes did not change. I then tried narrowing my eyes while wearing a fake smile and it looked weird. But if I think of something funny and smile, both eyes and mouth are in harmony.

  10. chigau (違う) says

    We, in Canada, just dumped a politician who looked like a Ken® doll.
    Don’t let appearances fool you, these … people can do alot of harm.

  11. Pierce R. Butler says

    Our stone–age ancestors learned to read faces and rapidly tell friend from foe.

    Our primate ancestors no doubt had that figured out long before any among them contemplated banging rocks against each other to make one more useful, or even walking around on only two feet.

  12. Holms says

    You might be forgetting that facial expressions are controlled by muslces that can be controlled both consciously and unconsciously, kind of like the way breathing can be controlled but is usually simply automatic. (Note: your lungs are now under conscious control for the next short while. Being reminded of your breathing does this.)

  13. Holms says

    Oh and on the actual topic, for me, Cruz always looks like he is on the verge of either crying or throwing a tantrum.

  14. Reginald Selkirk says

    Pierce R. Butler #16:Our primate ancestors no doubt had that figured out long before any among them contemplated banging rocks against each other…

    Our ancestors certainly did a lot of banging rocks against each other. Sometimes they even banged rocks against other rocks.

  15. raven says

    Marco Rubio has the opposite problem. He is cute and personable.

    I dislike Rubio slightly more. He is also a very creepy liar like Cruz with the same christofascist politics. But without some of Cruz’s baggage which makes him more dangerous, not less.

  16. kevinalexander says

    Then there’s the opposite phenomenon--Ronald Reagan who could make you thank him for fukking up the entire world-- he was such a nice guy.

  17. ramen says

    Dear Neurologist,

    Leave his face alone. This is like criticizing Chris Christie for being fat: if that’s all you’ve got, then you’re not trying very hard. More to the point, you’re being unfair to people with unlikeable faces or artificial mannerisms or whatever. People have irrational reactions to undeserving people all the time. HIS FACE IS FUCKING IRRELEVANT.

  18. DonDueed says

    Why do people take an instant dislike to Ted Cruz? It just saves time.

    Not original, but I thought it would fit well here.

  19. says

    I’ve thought about this a lot for years. It’s a fascinating question. When I was studying as a psych undergrad, of course I encountered Ekman’s work on expressions and interpretation. ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Ekman ) It appears that there are some expressions that are universal -- which, if there’s anything you can say “evolutionary psychologists have a point about” it’s that. Of course it becomes a tautology: we evolved expressions to have universal meaning because otherwise why have expressions at all? Ok. So if we grant that expressions serve a purpose and that their purpose is communication and to make impressions on other people -- so that other people infer something from our appearance (“his glowering mein made him seem threatening and a bit paranoid”) what happens if you optimize or de-optimize?

    Scenario #1) research discovers which parameters produce irresistable charisma. The politician of the future’s first action item is to get plastic surgery and expression/posture training.

    Scenario #2) some people are ‘naturally charismatic’ because they happen to be born with 18/00 features and expressions. The corollary to that is that equally many people are born with 0/00 -- so naturally repulsive that nobody would want to be around them even if they were paid to be.

    Scenario #3) we live in the universe of Walter Jon Williams’ “Aristoi” and the Indian classical dancer’s postures (“mudras”) are actually based on instinctive gestural interpretations. These gestural languages are understood, and reverse-engineered -- eventually weaponized to the point where an aristocrat can manipulate his listener’s emotions by projecting subliminal communication using posture, gesture, timing, and facial expression.

    I have always thought scenario #3 was compelling. When we think about body language tricks actors and PUAs already know, I’ve always been surprised that more politicians don’t overtly manipulate this stuff. Although, Seneca apparently did a lot of carefully thought gestures when he was orating. Hmmm, Cato the elder, too. Come to think of it I would bet that the ancients considered gestural and expression as key components of communication. So would a Kabuki or Noh actor.

    What I’m saying, in a roundabout way, is that Cruz is probably regretting not having learned to lie with his whole body, not just his mouth.

  20. tkreacher says

    ramen #25

    It isn’t his face, it’s how he uses it. So your Christie analogy fails.
    And why the fuck shouldn’t I judge someone for artificial mannerisms? It is, quite literally, an explicit attempt at manipulation. Attempting to emote “I care about you” while actually wanting to harm someone IS fucking vile.

  21. Kilian Hekhuis says

    #25, ramen: Apparently, “people” in general dislike Ted Cruz, the moment they see him. Science tries to answer the question why this is*. You claim his face is irrelevant needs proof, as much as a claim that is his face is relevant does. You say it’s “unfair” that people judge this way, but that’s not the point. It’s a well-established scientific fact that handsome people get paid more -- is that unfair -- sure it is. Is their handsomeness “fucking irrelevant”? I wouldn’t think so.
    *I am assuming for this discussion this is an actual phenomenon.

  22. sonofrojblake says

    @kevinalexander, 24:

    Ronald Reagan who could make you thank him for fukking up the entire world– he was such a nice guy.

    And yet, IIRC, in Oliver Sacks’ “The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat”, there’s a chapter about uproar in a neurological ward when the patients who were, again IIRC, aphasic and thus unable to understand language, were nevertheless enormously amused by the sight of Reagan speechifying. The explanation offered is that, lacking the comprehension of his words that blinds the rest of us to what’s going on, all they had left to perceive were the non-verbal cues which, to them, loudly announced his intentional deception, the crude obviousness of which they found funny.

  23. ramen says

    tkreacher (#28),

    It isn’t his face, it’s how he uses it. So your Christie analogy fails.

    Well, at least we agree (I think) that there’s a meaningful difference between judging what someone looks like and judging what someone does.

    And why the fuck shouldn’t I judge someone for artificial mannerisms?

    I will concede that I overreached with “mannerisms,” since technically that’s doing something. Technically. Still: you’re being unfair to people who don’t have good control over their mannerisms; you’re being taken in by people who do have good control over their mannerisms; and my original point—this is Ted Cruz, and you’re criticizing his face?

    Kilian (#29),

    It’s a well-established scientific fact that handsome people get paid more – is that unfair – sure it is. Is their handsomeness “fucking irrelevant”? I wouldn’t think so.

    Okay, let me acknowledge the existence of subconscious bias, and then suggest that it’s worth trying to overcome it. By, for example, trying to ignore what politicians’ faces look like and focusing instead on the things they say and do (“do,” here, meaning things besides moving their faces).

  24. Kilian Hekhuis says

    ramen (#33): It’s indeed worth trying to overcome it, if the bias is purely based on the appearance, and not on subconcious aversion because message and apearance don’t match. That said, the question raised is still “why do people dislike Ted Cruz at first sight”, and that’s a valid question (if true), that warrents an answer (ideally a scientific one). And if the answer to that question is “because of bias”, that’s still a good answer, even if we don’t like it.

  25. says

    John Morales @30…

    Kilian, there’s a related concept which is generally applied to women:

    Yup. It tends to be sexist as hell and is probably related to the whole thing of men telling women to smile. Interesting line in the linked Wiki article -- “Kanye West is a rare instance of a man described as showing resting bitch face.” The rare instance they used as an example is an African American man.

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