May 14, 2021
A new study has determined that we can classify a photo of an unfamiliar politician as either an autocrat or a democratically elected leader, with an accuracy of almost 70%.
The results of the study—conducted by Canada-based researchers Miranda Giacomin of MacEwan University; and Alexander Mulligan and Nicholas O. Rule of the University of Toronto—were published on February 4 in the journal, Social Psychological and Personality Science.
People’s faces offer many clues about their social status, personality, and political leanings. For example, even children can pick the winner of foreign elections based on quick judgments of facial photographs. People also can correctly classify US political candidates as either Republican or Democratic based on their faces. Similar results have been found in Switzerland.
But these judgments can fluctuate based on the situation. Past research, for example, has found that people prefer dominant-looking leaders during wartime, but prefer leaders with more feminine and trustworthy faces during peacetime. Likewise, CEOs of nonprofits are less dominant-looking than the CEOs of profit-earning organizations.
For the study, the researchers first categorized countries as either “democratic” or “authoritarian,” based on two indices. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index, and the Freedom House’s Freedom in the World report.
They wound up with a list of 160 male heads of state: 80 democratic leaders, and 80 dictators. About 33% currently are in power; and the rest are former heads of state. No female dictators or democrats were included, as the researchers wanted to eliminate any possible gender bias in the participants’ responses.
The researchers chose one photo of each leader, with the subject looking directly at the camera but not expressing any visible emotion. They converted these photos to greyscale, and cropped them tightly to remove extraneous background information. They excluded photos of very famous leaders such as Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. Likewise, they instructed participants to indicate if they recognized any of the photos; whenever they did, those responses were excluded from the results.
The first of the research paper’s two studies consisted of 90 Mechanical Turk participants recruited in the Unites States. Slightly more than half were women, and their average age was 35.
They viewed the 160 faces in random order, one by one, and categorized them at their own pace as either a likely dictator or a likely democratically-elected leader.
The average participant correctly categorized the leaders depicted in the photos as either autocrats or elected leaders just over 69% of the time.
In the second study, the researchers examined which factors led people to classify the portrayed faces as either democrats or dictators. They again recruited participants via Mechanical Turk; this time there were 229 participants.
They asked these participants to rate the same set of 160 photos for the following qualities on a scale of 1 to 8: affect (i.e. happy or sad), attractiveness, competence, dominance, maturity, likability, and trustworthiness.
About 61% of the world’s population currently live in a non-democratic country, the study’s authors point out, and that figure is on the rise: A 2018 study found that 112 countries have become less free since 2006.
Despite these worrisome trends, there has been little research into the ways that visual self-presentation might facilitate autocrats’ reign. And that’s why these researchers wanted to examine people’s perceptions of dictators, as doing so could help explain how autocrats “attain and maintain power.”
As this study indicates, people in democracies value justice, openness, and transparency, and voters in democratic countries “prefer politicians whose faces convey warmth through trustworthiness and likability.”
In contrast, dictators who look harsh and cold seem to more closely “match” an authoritarian stye of governance, which might “successfully elicit more fear and intimidation in the population.”
Research contact: @PsychNewsDaily