A new study has found that people can classify a photo of an unknown politician as either an autocrat or a democratically elected leader with nearly 70% accuracy. Participants also rated the photos of the elected leaders as more attractive, likable, and trustworthy than those of the dictators.
The research paper, published by Canada-based researchers Miranda Giacomin, Alexander Mulligan, and Nicholas O. Rule, was published on Jan February in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.
Politician’s faces influence voters
People’s faces give many clues about their social Environment status, personality and political leanings. For example, even children can determine the winner of elections abroad based on quick assessments of facial photos. People can also correctly classify US political candidates as either Republicans or Democrats based on their faces. Similar results were also found in Switzerland.
But these judgments may vary depending on the situation. For example, previous research has found that people prefer dominant-looking leaders in times of war, but prefer leaders with more feminine and trustworthy faces in times of peace. Likewise, CEOs of non-profit organizations look less domineering than CEOs of for-profit organizations.
Although some previous research has examined the perception of political leaders’ faces, most took place in democratic countries. To date, very few (if any) studies have examined the faces of leaders in authoritarian regimes.
The current study aimed to change that.
The autocrat versus the democrat
First, the researchers categorized countries as either “democratic” or “authoritarian” based on two indices. One was the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index and the other was Freedom House’s Freedom in the World report.
In the end they had a list of 160 male heads of state: 80 democratic leaders and 80 dictators. About a third are currently in power, with the rest being former heads of state. The full list of all 160 is included at the end of this post.
No female dictators or democrats were included because the researchers wanted to eliminate possible gender bias in the participants’ responses.
The Researchers chose a photo of each leader and looked directly at the camera without expressing any visible emotion. They converted these photos to grayscale and cropped them tightly to remove unnecessary background information. They excluded photos of very famous leaders like Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. They also instructed participants to indicate whether they recognized any of the photos; Whenever this was the case, these responses were excluded from the results.
The first of the two studies in the research consisted of 90 Mechanical Turk participants recruited in the United States. Just over half were women, and their average was 35.
They looked at the 160 faces in random order, one at a time, and categorized them at their own pace as either likely dictator or likely democratic – 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.
Why do people classify a Face as an autocrat or a democrat?
In the second study, the researchers looked at what factors led people to classify the faces depicted as 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 characteristics on a scale from 1 to 8: affect (i.e., happy or sad), attractiveness, competence, dominance, maturity, likeability, and trustworthiness .
Participants rated the democratically elected leaders as more attractive, competent, happier and warmer. “Warmth” in this context means a combination of sympathy and trustworthiness.
The authors suggest that these traits make sense in democracies “where popularity plays a crucial role in determining whether someone emerges as a leader.”
In contrast, they write: ” Looking colder and less attractive might similarly facilitate the authority dictators rely on to control their nations’ citizens.”
Why These Findings Matter: Democracies are in Decline
Some 61% of the world’s population currently lives in a non-democratic country, the study’s authors point out, and that number is rising; A 2018 study found that 112 countries have become less free since 2006.
Despite these worrying trends, little research has been done on how visual self-expression could facilitate autocratic rule.And that’s why these researchers wanted to examine perceptions of dictators, as it might help explain how autocrats “acquire and maintain power”.
As this study shows, people in democracies value justice, openness, and transparency , and voters in democratic countries “prefer politicians whose face conveys warmth through trustworthiness and sympathy.”
By contrast, dictators who look hard and cold seem more “consistent” with an authoritarian style of government, which may be the case is “successfully instilling more fear and intimidation in the populace.”
Future Directions: Adding more nuance to “autocrat” vs. “freely chosen”
These two studies consisted of participants based in the United States. The researchers suggest that future studies could examine whether people living in autocratic societies perceive leaders’ faces differently. Future research could also go beyond binary definitions such as democrat versus autocrat or “free” versus “non-free” countries.
Countries’ freedom varies, the authors point out, “with some democracies being more free than others and some dictatorships being more restricted.”
Similarly, some supposedly democratic countries are in many ” about dictatorships”. respected.
Given how powerful politicians are, the authors write, “it is important to understand how politicians are perceived, elected and hold their power.”
Study: “Dictators differ from democratically elected leaders by facial warmth”Authors: Miranda Giacomin, Alexander Mulligan and Nicholas O. RulePublished in: Social Psychological and Personality Science Release date: 4. February 2021DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/1948550621991368