01/11/2012 12:51 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Going With Your Gut in the Voting Booth

Political pundits, campaign consultants, and exit pollsters can ask all the questions they want regarding how voters are making up their minds this election cycle. But when you get right down to it, our impressions of the candidates are also driven by forces we're not aware of-and even if we were, we'd probably be too embarrassed to admit it.

Like, for instance, what the candidates look like.

No, this is not another blog post about the benefits (or costs) to being beautiful, though attractiveness certainly is a characteristic that can impact an election. Just ask Richard Nixon.

But I'm not talking about physical attractiveness per se. Rather, I'm referring to our expectations of what a president usually looks like. Or what he's supposed to look like (gendered pronoun use intentional).

You may find this a curious time in history to be offering such an argument, given that our current commander-in-chief looks very different from his 42 predecessors in office. But I'm also not talking here about demographics like race or gender, even though, once again, these are certainly characteristics that can influence elections.

What is an elected official supposed to look like? In a word, powerful.

In a series of studies conducted by psychologist Nick Rule and colleagues, research participants were shown photographs of candidates who ran for U.S. Senate in the 2006 election. Respondents were asked to rate each face on different dimensions, some related to interpersonal warmth (e.g., likeability, trustworthiness) and some related to power (e.g., dominance, facial maturity).

The respondents didn't recognize these faces as belonging to Senatorial candidates -- well-known faces such as Joe Lieberman's weren't included, and participants who did recognize them were excluded from analysis. Results demonstrated that these knee-jerk impressions based on simple, still-frame photos were sufficient to predict election outcomes. Specifically, the more powerful a candidate's face was perceived to be, the more likely he was to have won his election.

Attractiveness ratings did not predict election outcome. Neither did perceived warmth. (Though interestingly, in a parallel investigation in Japan, Rule and colleagues found that perceived warmth did predict election outcomes for candidates for the Japanese House of Representatives, whereas power did not. These data suggest that the cultural values associated with leadership vary between the U.S. and Japan).

A quick glance reveals a lot, even when it comes to politics. Among this U.S. sample, first impressions of how powerful a candidate appears to be predicts how likely that candidate actually is to win.

This conclusion may remind you of another factoid often bandied about during election season, namely that the taller candidate usually wins. It's by no means an absolute truism: George W. Bush served two terms despite giving up a few inches to each opponent. And the further back in history one goes, the less reliable presidential height data become. But by most analyses, being taller tends to benefit those who run for the highest office in the land.

Just how well-established is our mental association between height and power? An even more recent research paper offers a surprising answer: power goes so far as to lead us to overestimate our own height.

Across three experiments, researchers manipulated the extent to which power was on the mind. In one variation, they asked some participants to think about a time when they had power over someone else, and other participants to think about a time when someone else had power over them. In another study, some participants were assigned to the role of manager in a business simulation while others were assigned to the role of employee.

Respondents in the high-power conditions came to see themselves as taller. They estimated their height as greater; they even selected taller avatars to represent themselves in a computer game.

A mature face. A look that suggests a dominant personality. Height. These are factors that enter the equation when we evaluate political candidates, even though most voters you talk to would tell you otherwise. These are some of the characteristics that contribute to those "gut feelings" we bring into the voting both regarding how comfortable we are with certain candidates.

As I explore throughout my new book -- and as another author once famously wrote -- the little things in life often make a big difference. We might like to hold up certain decisions as too important to be colored by superficial considerations: whom we hire, whom we elect, whom we convict and send to prison. But still, the expectations and short-cuts that shape our less essential thought processes also rear their heads when the stakes are much higher.

Like this post? Interested in the book? Then check out the website for Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World (now available!). You can also follow Sam on Facebook here and on Twitter here. New book trailer video below: