“Charm was a scheme for making strangers like and trust a person immediately, no matter what the charmer had in mind.”
― Kurt Vonnegut (Breakfast of Champions)
You probably already know that, from what is said about first impressions on the human mind. And it certainly works. No wonder it comes acutely into play when marketing a product or even a person, say, a movie protagonist or a political candidate, to the public.
In a previous blog, we discussed how conscious decisions are a result of unconscious thought processes. This unconscious bias, like the impression a candidate makes because of their appearance, steers our judgment before we even form a stance on their politics.
When it comes to forming our opinion of a person, first impressions are very hard to shake. Of course, we are not fully at the mercy of momentary perception thanks to the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC for short). The OFC, a part of the frontal lobe of our brain, helps us relate all the information in decision-making. Not much is known about the OFC except that it is crucial for adaptive learning by comparing expected reward/punishment given the circumstances.
How does it matter in politics?
A study from the Journal of Neuroscience (published in June 2015) aimed to find whether lateral OFC damage in a person disrupted the ability to judge traits of political candidates or affected how these judgments influenced voting decisions. The test group consisted of individuals with frontal lobe damage sparing the OFC, some with OFC damage and a bunch of healthy others who had to vote on real-life candidates (previously unknown) based on photographs of their faces.
Based on the findings, the OFC might not be necessary to judge someone’s social traits from their appearance but it is essential in applying the information in political decision-making. For the ones with lateral OFC damage, only attractiveness rating matched with their voting choices.
When it comes to a public figure, like a candidate in a political race, we already subject them to careful scrutiny. But the ability to assimilate all the information for a balanced impression hinges on having a healthy OFC.
Since physical attractiveness was the only thing that factored in after OFC damage, it turns out looks do matter in a political candidate. The brain takes in the unconscious impression of their appearance into consideration as well when forming an opinion on the candidate.
But then again, looks are subjective to culture, gender and geographical location. It might get tricky to attribute some features as “universally attractive”. Many of these are impressions we have are from their body language, their smile or the tone of their voice.
Yet voters are unaware of these factors counting in on their decision, when it may even be a deciding factor. A candidate’s views and policies are definitely important but for many, it is a matter of messenger over the message.
The most cited example is the Kennedy-Nixon debate of 1960 (interestingly, the first televised US Presidential debate) where the young, dapper Kennedy seemed the clear winner against Nixon, who appeared pale and sweaty from a recent hospitalization. It is said people who listened in on the radio considered Nixon the victor. Clearly, the 88% Americans who had televisions by then had already been affected by their unconscious impression of the candidates.
In more recent times, we have Justin Trudeau from Canada and Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico establish the fact that looks can be a political game-changer.
Not always, though. We have to thank the orbitofrontal cortex for trying to make the best of the circumstance.