Can faces help swing the election?

October 14, 2008 7:22:48 PM PDT
When you watch McCain and Obama debate tomorrow night, keep this in mind: you may be swayed toward the one who looks most like you.

A Stanford research project suggests a candidate's appearance can be enough to change the way we vote.

Michelle De Rosario agreed to be a morph target along with a picture of President Bush to illustrate a study by Stanford's Jeremy Bailenson in the Public Opinion Quarterly. Morphed images that make a candidate's face resemble yours can subconsciously sway your vote.

"What we're demonstrating is that people make decisions about candidates on very superficial features. The simple fact of changing someone's face to make it a little bit more similar to you is enough to make you choose a different president," said Bailenson.

Bailenson's team made 240 of these morphs, each tailored to a volunteer. Two weeks before the 2004 presidential election, those same volunteers took an online voting survey that often included an image of one of the candidates morphed with the person taking the survey.

One-third of the volunteers saw real pictures; they gave Bush 46 percent of the vote, and Kerry 44 percent. But the one-third who had their photos morphed with bush gave him a landslide 53 to 38 percent victory and among those morphed with Kerry, Kerry won, 47 to 41 percent.

"We changed the patterns of who they indicated they would vote for by a very large margin, despite the fact that none of them consciously knew their own face had been there," said Bailenson.

Bailenson says the effect wasn't constant, and was only seen among independent voters and people whose party identity was weak.

You can see the final McCain/Obama debate on ABC7, LIVE, Wednesday night at 6:00 p.m.


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