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UCLA

Do Facial Features Reveal Political Party?

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By Meg Sullivan

Published Sep 28, 2012 4:06 PM


When it comes to female politicians, apparently you can judge a book by its cover, according to recent UCLA research.

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"Female politicians with stereotypically feminine facial features are more likely to be Republican than Democrat, and the correlation increases the more conservative the lawmaker's voting record," says the study's lead author, Colleen M. Carpinella, a UCLA graduate student in psychology. The findings also show that female politicians with less stereotypically feminine facial features were more likely to be Democrats, and the more liberal their voting record, the greater the distance the politician's appearance strayed from stereotypical gender norms.

Actually, the relationship between political party and facial features is so strong that politically uninformed undergraduates could determine the political affiliation of the representatives with an overall accuracy rate that exceeded chance, and the accuracy of those predications increased in direct relation to the lawmaker's proximity to feminine norms.

The findings also contribute to a growing body of evidence that suggest that voters may use shortcuts in forming impressions of political candidates.

Carpinella and the study's senior author, Kerri Johnson, an assistant professor of communication studies and psychology at UCLA, looked at facial features and political stances in the U.S. House of Representatives, which is large enough to yield statistically valid results. Plus, its members would not be as easily recognized by study subjects as members of more high-profile political bodies, such as the U.S. Senate.

"We weren't looking at hairstyle, jewelry or whether a person was wearing make-up or not," Carpinella said. "We wanted to get an objective measure of how masculine or feminine a face is, based on a scientifically derived average for male or female appearance."

The researchers started the project by feeding portraits of 434 members of the 111th House of Representatives into a computer modeling program used by researchers in their field. Loaded with a database of hundreds of scans of faces of men and women, the FaceGen Modeler allows researchers to measure how much the details of any one face approach the average for either gender.

Because the GOP is more frequently associated with policies that uphold traditional sex roles, the researchers expected to find that Republican representatives of both sexes would have more sex-typical faces than their counterparts across the aisle. The theory, however, did not hold for male politicians. In a finding that the researchers do not view as particularly revealing, the faces of male Republicans, on average, scored as less masculine than the faces of their Democratic counterparts.

"It may be unnecessary for Republican men to exhibit masculinity through their appearance," Carpinella said. "Their policy advocacy and leadership roles may already confer these characteristics on them."

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