I’m going to consciously change up my reading habits a bit this year, focusing somewhat less on traditional topics in freethought and skepticism and more on becoming a “thoroughgoing skeptic” in the sense explained in an earlier post. I will spend less time reviewing/suggesting book length reads and more time highlighting relatively brief academic articles which are freely available online, mostly on the topic of how human cognition really works and often fails.
The first article I’d like to bring to your attention is particularly salient now that the 2016 U.S. presidential elections are looming large in the American mind. It is an article entitled Predicting political elections from rapid and unreflective face judgments, by Charles Ballew and Alexander Todorov, available online courtesy of the National Academy of Sciences. From the abstract:
Here we show that rapid judgments of competence based solely on the facial appearance of candidates predicted the outcomes of gubernatorial elections, the most important elections in the United States next to the presidential elections. In all experiments, participants were presented with the faces of the winner and the runner-up and asked to decide who is more competent. To ensure that competence judgments were based solely on facial appearance and not on prior person knowledge, judgments for races in which the participant recognized any of the faces were excluded from all analyses. Predictions were as accurate after a 100-ms exposure to the faces of the winner and the runner-up as exposure after 250 ms and unlimited time exposure (Experiment 1). Asking participants to deliberate and make a good judgment dramatically increased the response times and reduced the predictive accuracy of judgments relative to both judgments made after 250 ms of exposure to the faces and judgments made within a response deadline of 2 s (Experiment 2). Finally, competence judgments collected before the elections in 2006 predicted 68.6% of the gubernatorial races and 72.4% of the Senate races (Experiment 3). These effects were independent of the incumbency status of the candidates. The findings suggest that rapid, unreflective judgments of competence from faces can affect voting decisions.
Emphasis mine. In a perfect world, one (even one as bright and promising as a Princeton undergrad) ought not be able to predict the outcome of elections better than 50% of the time merely from having seen the two candidates faces for a ¼ of a second. As you can see from Table 1 (most particularly the daggerish bits which look like this †) we do not live in anything like a perfect world. We live in a world where some significant fraction of voters are being influenced by the part of their brain which cannot possibly take a candidate’s demonstrated measures of competence and personal history into consideration.