Babyfacedness and Political Implications

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When individuals form impressions of other people, they are influenced by an assortment of factors. One such factor is the features of a person’s face. Physiognomy is using someone’s facial features to judge their character and personality traits; this practices dates back to ancient Greece (Hassin & Trope, 2000). One particular phenomenon of physiognomy occurs when adults have neotenous facial features, which are the retention of youthful traits in adults. Research has revealed that individuals perceive those with a babyfaced facial appearance to be associated with childlike traits (Berry & McArthur, 1985; Keating, Randall, & Kendrick, 1999; Todorov, Mandisodza, Goren, & Hall, 2005; Zebrowitz & Montepare, 2005). A babyfaced appearance includes large and round eyes, small chin, high eyebrows, and thick, pudgy lips (Berry & McArthur, 1985). A mature face usually includes thick eyebrows, thin lips, a wide jaw, and small eyes; these features are perceived to be associated with mature traits such as power and strength (Keating et al., 1999). Components and Physiognomic Characteristics of a Babyface Berry and McArthur (1985) examined some components and consequences of adults having a babyface. Participants in this study viewed a series of 20 pictures with different individuals, who varied in babyfacedness. The participants were asked to rate the physiognomic characteristics and babyishness of the faces (Berry & McArthur, 1985). Results showed that participants perceived individuals with babyface features to have more childlike traits, compared to mature-faced targets. These childlike traits included honesty, warmth, kindness, and naïveté. In addition, previous research by McArthur and Apatow (1984) found that as babyfaced features were increased in a manipulated photograph, the ratings of warmth, kindness and honesty also increased.

Perceptions of Politicians

Voters’ perceptions of political candidates can be affected by their facial maturity. Zebrowitz and Montepare (2005) studied the remarkable effect of physiognomy on political elections and found that the outcomes of almost 70% of recent Senate races were accurately predicted by participants simply viewing a picture of the candidates’ face. Specifically, participants selected candidates with more mature faces, rating these individuals as more competent and knowledgeable than their babyfaced rivals. Moreover, Keating and colleagues (1999) found that when famous politicians’ faces were subtly morphed to increase babyfacedness, they were perceived to have more childlike traits. Digitized facial images of President Reagan, Clinton, and Kennedy were all manipulated to be more neotenous. Although subjects were unaware of these subtle changes, their perceptions of the president’s traits were nevertheless altered. Regardless of whether participants supported or opposed Clinton, neotenous features made him appear more honest and good-looking, while his perceived power was not reduced (Keating et al., 1999). Additionally, when mature features were enhanced, the youngest president, Kennedy, appeared to be more powerful and the oldest president, Reagan, appeared too old and was rated to be less powerful and cunning. Subtle, concealed changes in the faces of famous presidents altered the subject’s perceived character judgment of these familiar politicians (Keating et al., 1999).

Social and Political Consequences

Mature-looking individuals are favored for leadership positions, particularly as government leaders. Correspondingly, baby-faced individuals are more often preferred for occupations involving warmth, such as nursing (Zebrowitz & Montepare, 2005). Todorov and colleagues (2005) found that while it is widely assumed that voter’s decisions are based on logical and thoughtful reflections, quick and impulsive trait inferences can significantly play a role in voting choices. Judgments based on interpreted physiognomic characteristics are made with high degrees of confidence; this overconfidence has a steady effect on people’s decisions and opinions (Hassin & Trope, 2000). When people are choosing candidates for office, one of the most important traits is competence. Todorov and colleagues (2005) had participants evaluate the competence of candidates running for the U.S. Senate or House. The participants were very quickly shown side-by-side black and white photos of the winners and runner ups of recent elections and asked to assess their competence. Results showed that candidates with more perceived competence won 71.6% of the Senate elections and 66.8% of the House elections and competence even significantly predicted the margin of victory (Todorov et al., 2005). Todorov and colleagues (2005) realized that participants might make inferences of likability rather than of competence. To rule out this alternative hypothesis, participants were asked to rate seven traits of the candidate, rather than just competence. Participants were asked to rate competence, intelligence, leadership, honesty, trustworthiness, charisma, and likability. There were distinct differences among the seven trait judgments, but most importantly was that the judgment of competence was the only factor to accurately predict the outcome of the elections. In addition, the results did not suggest age, attractiveness, or familiarity could account for the relation between perceived competence and the outcome of the elections. A regression analysis showed that these other judgments of age, attractiveness, and familiarity contributed only 4.7% of the variance in Senate races, while competence singlehandedly accounted for 30.2% of the variance. Furthermore, in contests with same sex and ethnicity, competence accounted for 45% of the variance and the other judgments accounted for less than 1% of the variance (Todorov et al).

When does it fail?

More mature-faced looking candidates have lost the elections 30% of the time. A possible explanation is that in these cases, babyfaced candidates could have been preferred because of potential face biases(Zebrowitz & Montepare, 2005). Certain traits may be more important in one particular election contest in comparison to another. For example, integrity is a trait linked to babyfaces and if this trait is important to voters in an important election, babyfaced candidates could have an advantage (Zebrowitz & Montepare, 2005). Other information about the candidates, such as party affiliation, is also important to voters. Furthermore, voters’ subjective views are undoubtedly also based on the candidates’ positions on specific issues.


Todorov and colleagues (2005) showed that is possible to predict the outcome of elections based on voter’s judgments of appearance. Yet, voter’s decisions in real life are based on more than just judging the competence of a candidate by their appearance. When voters have more information about the candidate, rather than just a photograph, the initial impressions are weakened (Todorov et. al 2005). However, this remarkable phenomenon raises unanswered questions on the underlying brain mechanisms as to why these appearance biases exist (Zebrowitz & Montepare, 2005). If psychologists continue to study the nature and source of appearance biases, it could benefit the real world—particularly by identifying these causal factors and increasing the likelihood that leaders get elected based on skill, not appearance (Zebrowitz & Montepare, 2005). Although certain candidates may look more competent, they are not likely to be more skillful and yet neotenous manipulations in politican’s facial features can alter the public’s perception of the characters of these leaders (Keating et. al 1999). An empirical question that needs to be further addressed and studied is “If trait inferences from facial appearance are correlated with the underlying traits, the effects of facial appearance on voting decisions can be normatively justified” (Todorov et. al).


Berry, D. S., & McArthur, L.Z. (1985). Some Components and Consequences of a Babyface. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 48, 312-323.

Hassin, R., & Trope, Y. (2000) Facing faces: Studies on the cognitive aspects of physiognomy. Journal of Personality Social Psychology, 78, 837-852.

Keating, C. F, Randall, D., & Kendrick, T. (2002). Presidential Physiognomies: Altered Images, Altered Perceptions. Political Psychology, 20, 593-610.

McArthur, L. Z., & Apatow, K. (1983–1984). Impressions of baby-faced adults. Social Cognition, 2, 315–342.

Todorov, A., Mandisodza, A.N., Goren, A., & Hall, C.C. (2005). Inferences of competence from faces predict election outcomes. Science, 308, 1623–1626.

Zebrowitz, L. A., & Montepare, J. (2005). Appearance Does Matter. Science, 308, 1565- 1566.

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