Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

No Matter Who You Vote For

By Tim Hannan

A new study sheds light on how your brain decides your vote.

With their expensive suits, hairstyles and eyebrow trimming, it may be assumed that politicians are firm believers in the proposition that personal appearance is important to voters. Yet, while scientific investigations have established that attractiveness plays a role in voting decisions, it is also known that impressions of a candidate’s competence moderate this effect, even if that judgement of competence is based solely on the candidate’s appearance.

A recent study reported in the Journal of Neuroscience sheds new light on the decision-making process in voting, finding that damage to a specific region of the brain may affect a person’s ability to utilise judgements of apparent competence when selecting a preferred candidate.

It has previously been established that voters’ decisions about candidates are substantially influenced by judgements based on their appearance. Opinions may be strongly affected by one’s first impression of a candidate, including judgements about personal attractiveness and his or her apparent competence. Prior research has suggested that several regions of the brain are involved in weighing information about candidates, though how several different attributes of candidates are evaluated in combination when forming a decision has not been well understood.

Recently, researchers at McGill University explored whether brain damage affected electors’ voting decisions. The study included 25 patients with frontal lobe damage and 53 healthy participants, who were presented with photos of the faces of real but unknown political candidates. Each was asked to rate the attractiveness of the candidates to form a view about their likely competence, and to select the candidate for whom they would be inclined to vote.

As has been found in previous studies, ratings of attractiveness and of competence based on appearance reliably predicted healthy participants’ voting decisions: those rated as more attractive and/or more competent received most votes.

Yet, when the voting choices of brain-impaired participants were examined, an interesting finding emerged. Those who had suffered damage to the frontal lobes generally performed in an identical manner to the healthy participants, with their votes predicted by both appearance and competence judgements.

However, a different result was obtained if the damage was located in one specific region, the lateral orbital frontal cortex (OFC). Patients with damage to the lateral OFC demonstrated similar judgements of attractiveness and competence to other brain-injured patients and healthy controls, but only their attractiveness ratings influenced their voting choice. That is, while they rated competence in candidates in a similar manner to others, this information did not modify their voting decisions, which were based solely on attractiveness.

The results of the study add weight to prior findings that decision-making involves the weighing of several variables, and suggests that at least one aspect of the mechanism can be attributed to a specific brain region.

The study has encouraged the proposal that the lateral OFC is important when difficult decisions must be made, especially where these involve considering different types of information in order to select an option on the basis of values. While a functioning OFC does not appear to be necessary for making judgements about attractiveness or competence, it appears that it may be required for actually using this information in value-based decision-making.

While neuropsychologists will be intrigued by this study, the implications for political candidates and their backers are striking. If voters are disposed to judge competence on the basis of appearance, candidates who know themselves to be incompetent may be motivated to feign competence through better grooming. Unattractive candidates will be required to persuade voters of their competence by other means. And candidates who are manifestly attractive but whose appearance conveys an impression of incompetence will nevertheless appeal to a subset of patients with damage to the lateral OFC: admittedly, a small and rather disorganised group.

On a wider scale, one way to improve the quality of the electoral system would be to ensure that voters have fewer options to observe the faces of political candidates – which would probably receive widespread public support.

A/Prof Tim Hannan is Head of the School of Psychology at Charles Sturt University, and the Past President of the Australian Psychological Society.