Why waste time holding an election when children can look at pictures and pick the winners? Scientists showed a few years ago that such an approach worked for adults looking at mug shots of candidates for the U.S. Congress. Now two economists at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland have extended the findings to children, using candidates in the 2002 French parliamentary election.
John Antonakis and Olaf Dalgas hypothesized that because "naïve" ratings based solely on facial appearance correlate with actual voter behavior, voters and children might have a lot in common. In one experiment, they showed 684 university students 57 pairs of faces--election winners and runners-up--and asked them to judge who looked more "competent." They found that the students chose the winner 60% of the time, a statistically significant deviation from random choices. Using the same pictures, the researchers got a 64% hit rate when they asked 681 children aged 5 through 13 to pick the "captain of their boat" in a computer game.
The authors conclude, in a paper published tomorrow in Science, that the children used the same cues as adults when assessing a face.
Princeton University psychologist Alexander Todorov, author of the earlier congressional elections paper, calls the findings "really striking." He agrees they suggest that the ways people infer traits from appearance "are surprisingly stable across the life span." Furthermore, he says, given that small Swiss children are no worse than adults in passing judgment on French politicians, it's unlikely that voters are basing their judgments on subconscious knowledge about candidates or learned associations between facial features and competence.