John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, came from nowhere to defeat once favored Republicans Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson. A team of researchers predicted this outcome by relying on the snap judgments of New Zealand schoolgirls.
Professor Scott Armstrong of the Wharton School and his colleagues Professors Randall Jones in the US, Malcolm Wright in Australia, and Kesten Green in New Zealand had their interest piqued by the work of Princeton Professor Alexander Todorov. Todorov found that snap judgments of competence, based on a quick look at pictures of candidates' faces, had done a good job of predicting the winners of congressional and senate races.
The Wharton team extended this research to US presidential primaries. From May through mid-August 2007 the researchers obtained ratings of facial competence of 24 potential contenders for the major party nominations for president in 2008. The researchers provided no other information to the raters than color portrait photographs of the candidates.
Because the team wanted ratings made in the absence of any other knowledge about the candidates, they relied heavily on university students in Australia and New Zealand and high school girls in New Zealand, who were unlikely to be familiar with the candidates. Even so, some of the students recognized Clinton and Obama, in particular, and those ratings were excluded. In the end, the researchers obtained between 139 and 348 ratings for each contender.
In its November 2, 2007, issue Science published a report on this study when polls had McCain at 15%, still trailing Giuliani and Thompson for the Republican nomination, and support for Democrat Obama was in the low 20s. The researchers hypothesized that the candidates' standing in the polls would move closer to their facial competence rankings as more voters became familiar with their appearance. And so it happened.
Warning: while it may be efficient for people to choose a president on the basis of snap judgments, to do so may not provide the best leadership. There is no relationship between looking competent and the real thing. The researchers suggest that political parties should increase their chances by putting forward competent-looking candidates, but that voters should make decisions after becoming familiar with the candidates' policies.