Facial discrimination of political candidates and voting behavior

[„Dimitrie Cantemir” Christian University]

After a review of psychosociological research concerning the sources of prejudices and discriminations, this article brings into discussion the cognitive approach of perceiving the other as being „otherwise” than the members of the in-group. We will discuss the situations, structural and personal factors as being some determining ones for discriminant behavior. Within the lines of cognitive paradigm, we ask how the individual does discriminate, by perceptive processes, between candidates which are considered attractive, which go together with the expectations of the electorate concerning the physical aspects and candidates who are „less desirable”.

Keywords: discrimination; prejudice; face; political candidates; cognition


Research of prejudice and discrimination: short history

In daily language and in mass media one will make an use and abuse of the words „discrimination” in order to describe the many incidents between intergroup and interpersonal relationships. Despite the social discourse for fighting unfavorable judgments addressed to other groups or to other persons before having enough knowledge to be able to do so (prejudice) and blocking of the transposition of these behaviors (discrimination), in every day language one still makes some confusion between the meanings of prejudice, stereotype and discrimination. For the most part, the three terms are synonyms, referring, generally to attitudes that we have about members of another social group. Choosing a psychosociological explication, Susan T. Fiske (1954) argumented that while the stereotype „refers to a cognitive component; preconception represents the affective component (emotional), and discrimination the behavioral component; the reactions that we have against other individuals belonging to other social groups are perceived as being significantly different that those of our group1”.

Even if for most of the situations hostile attitudes against a certain group or against a person are transformed in real behaviors, between prejudice and discrimination there is no automatic connection. Since the ‘30 of the past century, researches based on a questionnaire from the United States of America had shown that the Americans had a powerful unfavorable attitude against Chinese people and a significant percent say that they wish to avoid social contact with Chinese. But not all behavioral predispositions have effectively manifested themselves in discriminations. The third decade and the forth decade of the past century have collected a considerable quantity of data concerning racial attitudes.  An empirical proof in this sense has been brought by the American social psychologist from Stanford University, Richard LaPierre, by the means of a famous experiment developed during the year 1934. The research has been performed in two stages. During the first one, the author has crossed the territory of the United States of America together with a couple of Chinese frequenting 66 hotels and 184 restaurants. For the most part of the cases, they have been received with amability and respect being refused just one time, fact that really was a disagreement with the results of attitude enquiries previously developed, these being that the Americans discriminate the Chinese. Six months later, Richard LaPierre has addressed himself in written to hotels and restaurants that have been visited and asked the following question „Would you accept Chinese as clients of your establishment?” More than 90% from the owners of hotels and restaurants have answered that they would not accept Chinese clients. The research emphasized the discrepant relationship that exists between attitude and behavior: preconceptions of individuals are manifested more at a declarative, latent and less at a behavioral level2. Even if the experiment conducted by Richard LaPierre has today just an historical value, being criticable from a methodological point of view because it has supposed a monocausal relationship between prejudices and discrimination, research and has opened an important chapter in the psycho sociological study of these phenomena.

If the early stage of social psychology as science, discrimination has been studied in the context of the economical crisis between the years of 1928-1930 that have determined many social clivages, the growth of unemployment and great waves of immigrants, the characteristic of researches during the classical period 3 of social psychology have been some explications of individual factors, especially by the appeal to the theory of frustration – aggressivity. It starts from the premise that individuals that accepts prejudices, that modifies in fact the reality, suffer of personality disorders and as a consequence the generating cause of preconceived judgments can be found in individual motivations and not in a social situations. One of the works with a greater influence in the history of psychosociology, in political psychology and especially in the research of prejudices is the research The Authoritarian Personality4, published in 1950 in the United States of America. The authors - TheodorW. Adorno, Else Frenkel-Brunsivik, Daniel J. Levinson, R. Nevitt Sanford – have tried to answer the question: „If a potentially fascistic individual exists, what, precisely, is he like? What goes to make up antidemocratic thought? What are the organizing forces within the person? If such a person exists, how commonly does he exist in our society? And if such a person exists, what have been the determinants and what the course of his development?”5 From the introduction the authors refuse some situational explications, just like the ones previously mentioned by Richard LaPierre, supposing that „According to the theory that has guided the present research, personality is a more or less enduring organization of forces within the individual. These persisting forces of personality help to determine response in various situations, and it is thus largely to them that consistency of behavior —whether verbal or physical—is attributable. But behavior, however consistent, is not the same thing as personality; personality lies behind behavior and within the individual. The forces of personality are not responses but readinesses for response; whether or not a readiness will issue in overt expression depends not only upon the situation of the moment but upon what other readinesses stand in opposition to it. Personality forces which are inhibited are on a deeper level than those which immediately and consistently express themselves in overt behavior.it is possible that all economical reasons of the individual not to play a dominant and crucial role that are usually granted6”. The research has marqued an evolution concerning the measurement instruments capable to measure the tendency of a person to anti-Semitism. The study has been based on a detailed research performed during the period 1945-1946 on a sample of 2099 7 persons, white and non-Jews, in their majority being inhabitants from California and containing much more stages. During the first one, the attitudes of subjects against Jews people have been measured by „Anti-Semitism Scale”. On a scale of six points, the subjects expressed their agreement and disagreement concerning affirmations just like „Anyone who employs much more people should take care not to employ a bigger number of Jews people8”. During the second stage, the authors took into consideration another variable during the thinking of preconception type, like: preconception against other social groups, like black Americans. In this sense, has been established on a scale that will measure the attitudes of subjects against black people. At a more general level, one has informed the problem of hostility against out-groups and strangers as well as for deviant people. The results have confirmed the general premises of the study, registering some powerful correlations between the preconceptions against a minoritarian group and preconceptions against strangers in general, and against the deviants of their own group.

These results have given birth to a new question of research, which are exactly the passions that can determine a certain person to hate the others. Here appeared the „F Scale” assigned to measurement the tendencies of the personality that indicated an admiration against powerful rulers and contempt against weakness. The scale did not referred to a specific extra group, but has been meant for the evolution of attitudes against authority in general, by the means of sentences like „Obedience and respect for authority are the most important virtues children should learn9”. The person who expressed hostile attitudes against black people, Jews and strangers, has also expressed an idea in the favor of rigid discipline and obedience and against „sexual deviants”.

The third stage has aimed the development of some interviews with 150 interlocutors, half of them being selected from the ones that had initially obtained a high score on the ethnocentrism scale and half of them obtained a very low score10. As a consequence of interviews developed within the victims of Nazism as well as of actors Theodor W. Adorno one has mentioned the conception of „authoritarian personality”.  Individuals with such a personality are characterized by the tendency to humiliate themselves and to be obedient against authorities, to manifest contempt against the groups with an inferior status that he tries to humiliate. The transformation of answers to these interviews has allowed to the authors to elaborate the profile of authoritarian personality, characterized by a rigid thought, of a cliché type, especially determined by the rigid education received during first stage of socialization. Authoritarian manifestations have been explained by the „theory of frustration-aggressivity”, formulated by the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud in 1930: feelings that cannot be expressed, do not disappear, and are directed to a new target. Authoritarian person has ambivalent feelings against parents, the positive ones are aimed against these ones, and the negative ones are sent to another group, perceived as being inferior or not obeying moral laws. These behavioral tendencies have been put by authors on the grounds of a specific pattern of education from primary scolarization: parents imposed a very severe discipline which did not allowed to the child to manifest the feelings and receive warmth and understanding. In order to avoid punishments, the child had to obey, rejecting the anger. This accumulated hostility has been discharged in the moment when the respective person has acquired a certain superiority over other people.

After twenty years from the ending of the Second World War, Marvin Karlins, Thomas L. Coffman and Gary Walters (1969), by the means of an enquiry developed on three generations, since 1933 to 1969, have shown racial preconceptions which are still dominating for students from Princeton University, being expressed by generalization like „Germans are aggressive”, „Chinese are nationalists”, „Italians are passional”, „Jews are materialists”, „Black people are impulsive”11.

Cognitive sources of prejudices: „race effect” and face discrimination

Another source of preconceptions cannot be observed in the social reality, and is the product of some mental processes, the manner in which individuals give a meaning to the world they live in, just like they think and interpret the social world. Experiments from the last thirty years have especially aimed the cognitive sources of discrimination, having as an object of study the stereotypical thinking and categorization processes. These last ones refer to the tendency of individuals to classify objects (including persons) in distinct groups, based on the characteristics that they have in common. This also happens, for examples, when we perceive the faces of members of other ethnical groups, compared to the members of in-groups: we have the impression that „all Chinese and all black people have the same face”, they are alike and they do not have distinct features. In reality, there is about an error of judgment determined by the fact of categorization. Roy S. Malpass and Jerome Kravitz (1969) by the means of an experiment developed by the University of Illinois that have brought proofs for the help of the hypothesis that we easily recognize the face of the members of the culture that we belong to than of that of other cultures, firstly due to the frequent interaction with the members of the in-group. The participants to the study – represented by 20 white American students and 20 black American students – had the task to recognize the 20 photos that they have previously viewed from the 80 photos projected by the authors on a screen (presenting 80 adults, 40 white Americans and 40 black Americans).  The results have confirmed that „race effect” in the perception of the face, the photos of persons belonging to the same race being easily recognized by subjects compared with the ones of other groups12. As a consequence, the perception of the physionomical homogeneity of the out-group is in fact a spontaneous infer of characteristics.

Ulterior, the authors of the theory of social identity, Henri Tajfel have brought some more refined proofs concerning the causes for the favorisation of the members of the in-group. By the means of an experiment consecrated in the history of psyhosociology, Henri Tajfel (1981) has shown to the subjects an experiment of eight segments of different lengths. Each line has been separately presented, and the subjects had a task of experiment to estimate the length of everyone. In experimental conditions, four lines have been noted with „A”, four longer lines with „B”. The research has emphasized the simple fact for the tagging of lines that affect the subjects’ judgment. The subjects had the tendency to judge the four shorter lines – noted with A – as having a closer length than the one they have in reality. As well, subjects, have exaggerated the resemblance between lines B, as well as the difference between the segments A and B, overestimating the differences between the lines A and B and sub estimating the differences between the lines of the same category13.

Relatively recently, Pamela K. Smith, Ap Dijksterhis and Shelly Chaiken (2008), have designed an experiment that should verify the frequency of interpersonal relationships with persons of the same race and determines preconceptions against the members of out-groups. For this to happen, 68 subjects, 23 men and 45 women with an average age of 19 years have been asked to participate in a research for facial recognition, being distributed in two groups. The first had as a task to evaluate 14 photos from which half present the faces of some black people and half the faces of some white persons to which the subjects have been subliminally exposed before the starting of the experiment. The control group has assessed as well the photos on a scale of seven points (How much do you like the person in the photo?) (1 not at all, 7 very much) without being exposed to the subliminal perception of photos. The subjects that have been induced to the stimulus representing some white persons have negatively evaluated the photos with black people, compared with subjects from the control group, from where the conclusion of the authors that while individuals are exposed to the faces of the in-group they favor racial prejudices 14

Facial discrimination of political candidates and voting behavior

Even if the researches concerning voting behavior have invoques some causes related to the economical and political context, the appearance, gestures and postures, this meaning the personal characteristics of the candidates they proved as being some significant variables in the distribution of votes. Some recent psychosociological research have demonstrated that the naive and rapid transformation of the faces of political candidates represents a factor of voting behavior for elections for the Congress of the United States of America, even if these ones have a short term influence. Alexander Todorov and collaborators (2005) after showing some pairs of photos with candidates chosen for the American Senate during the years of 2000 and 2004 and gave the students the task to choose the most competent of these ones, have found the person frequently selected by the subjects was in fact the one that won the elections and the facial component has been predictable for the chosen candidates15.

Matthew Atkinson, Ryan D. Enos and Seth J. Hill (2007) have shown that the perception of facial atractivity has no effect over the individual vote in general, but this one correlates with the options of the sustainers of the political party from which the candidate belongs. The research methodology has contained two sociological enquiries to which 545 students responded and which have been asked to choose from two photos, the person that they thought as being the most competent to occupy a place in the Senate.

In this manner, authors have tested the influence of the face for the elections from 2000, 2002 and 2004 demonstrating that the facial competence correlates with the human capital and the growth of simpatisants. From here appears the relation between the political success and physionomy: the attractive face influences the inference of psychological characteristics of persons, people having the tendency to attribute some psycho-moral characteristics more favorable for beautiful persons (in particular, the persons with an attractive face) than those of less beautiful persons. The face influences electors with a powerful political orientation, not necessarily some weak sustainers and non-sustainers16.  

Even if some authors have insisted on the fact that the decoding of information that come from the face are naive and are not conform with the reality, even though some researches have showed the functional value of these ones: accurate or not these ones guide the behavior and forecast the reactions of individual in certain contexts, and is important to understand the mechanism by which these ones are formed. Using the paradigm thin slices17 - Daniel J. Benjamin and Jesse M. Shapiro (2006) have shown that after some naive subjects have followed a video registration of just 10 seconds (without sound), extracted from TV electoral debates, have been capable to estimate the candidate that has won elections even if they did not knew who are the protagonists who are filmed 18.  The exposure of the expressive behavior of the partner of interaction even if for a few seconds that can guide our behavior, underlines the authors. Usually, in come circumstances in which we do not have the information about the persons that we meet, the first impression is formed on the basis of some observable characteristics (height, age, race, sex). The same happens in the case of voting behavior: the first impression, processed during the first seconds of exposure to stimuli, ulterior determines the general impression.



ADORNO, Theodor W., FRENKEL-BRUNSIVIK, Else, LEVINSON, Daniel J. R., SANFORD Nevitt, „The Authoritarian Personality” în Max Horkheimer, Samuel H. Flowerman (eds.), Studies in Prejudice (New York: Harper, 1950).
ATKINSON, Matthew, ENOS, Ryan D., HILL, Seth J., „Candidate Faces and Election Outcomes”, Workshop on Political Methodology (Los Angeles: University of California, 2007).
BENJAMIN, Daniel J., SHAPIRO, Jesse M., „Thin-slice forecasts of gubernatorial elections”, National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper Series, 12660 (2006).
CHELCEA, Septimiu, A century of psycho sociology: Authors, works, events (Bucharest: INI Editions, 1999), 4.
FISKE, Susan T., „Stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination” în D. G. Gilbert, S. T. Fiske, G.  Lindsey (eds.), The Handbook of Social Psychology (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1998).
GAVRELIUC, Alin, From interpersonal relationships to social communication: social psychology and progressive stages of the articulation of the person (Iaşi: Polirom, 2006), 79-80.
IVAN, Loredana, The most important 20 seconds. Competence in nonverbal communication (Bucharest: Tritonic Editions), 2009
KARLINS, Marvin, COFFMAN, Thomas L., WALTERS, Gary, „On the fading of social stereotypes: studies in three generation of college students”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 13 (1969): 1-16.
MALPASS , Roy S., KRAVITZ, Jerome, „Recognition for faces of own and other race”,  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 13 (1969): 330-334.
SMITH, Pamela K., DIJKSTERHIS, Ap, CHAIKEN, Shelly, „Subliminal exposure to faces and racial attitudes: Explosure to Whites makes Whites like Blacks less”, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44 (2008): 50-64.
TAJFEL, Henri, Human groups and social categories (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981).
TODOROV, Alexander, MANDISODZA, Aesu N., GORE, Amir, HALL, Crsystall C. „Inferences of competence from faces predict election outcomes”, Science, 38 (2005): 1623-1626.



1 Susan T. Fiske, „Stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination” in D. G. Gilbert, S. T. Fiske, G. Lindsey (eds.), The Handbook of Social Psychology (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1998).
2 Alin Gavreliuc, From interpersonal relationships to social communication: social psychology and progressive stages of the articulation of the person (Iaşi: Polirom, 2006), 79-80.
3 Septimiu Chelcea, A century of psycho sociology: authors, works, events (Bucharest: Edition INI, 1999), 4.
4 Theodor W. Adorno, Else Frenkel-Brunsivik, Daniel J. Levinson, R. Nevitt Sanford, „The Authoritarian Personality” in Max Horkheimer, Samuel H. Flowerman (eds.), Studies in Prejudice (New York: Harper, 1950).
5 Adorno, Frenkel-Brunsivik, Levinson, Sanford, „The Authoritarian”, 2.
6 Adorno, Frenkel-Brunsivik, Levinson, Sanford, „The Authoritarian”, 5.
7 Adorno, Frenkel-Brunsivik, Levinson,Sanford, „The Authoritarian”, 21-22.
8 Adorno, Frenkel-Brunsivik, Levinson,Sanford, „The Authoritarian”, 65.
9 Adorno, Frenkel-Brunsivik, Levinson, Sanford, „The Authoritarian”, 226-227.
10 Adorno, Frenkel-Brunsivik, Levinson, Sanford, „The Authoritarian”, 25-26.
11 Marvin Karlins, Thomas L. Coffman, Gary Walters, „On the fading of social stereotypes: studies in three generation of college students”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 13 (1969): 1-16.
12 Roy S. Malpass, Jerome Kravitz, „Recognition for faces of own and other race”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 13 (1969): 330-334.
13 Henri Tajfel, Human groups and social categories (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981).
14 Pamela K. Smith, Ap Dijksterhis, Shelly Chaiken, „Subliminal exposure to faces and racial attitudes: Explosure to Whites makes Whites like Blacks less”, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44 (2008): 50-64.
15 Alexander Todorov, Aesu N. Mandisodza, amir Gore, Crsystall C. Hall. „Inferences of competence from faces predict election outcomes”. Science, 38 (2005): 1623-1626.
16 Matthew Atkinson, Ryan D. Enos, Seth J. Hill, „Candidate Faces and Election Outcomes”, Workshop on Political Methodology (Los Angeles: University of California, 2007).
17 For details concerning the experimental paradigm thin slices see Loredana Ivan. Cele mai importante 20 de secunde. Competenţa în comunicarea nonverbală (The most important 20 seconds. Competence in nonverbal communication (Bucureşti: Editura Tritonic, 2009.)
18 Daniel J. Benjamin, Jesse M. Shapiro, „Thin-slice forecasts of gubernatorial elections”, National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper Series, 12660 (2006).


ALINA DUDUCIUC – Asistent universitar doctor, Facultatea de Ştiinţe Politice, Universitatea Creştină „Dimitrie Cantemir”.




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