This project seeks to determine how first impressions based on physical appearance influence subsequent political learning and decision-making. Extant research has found that appearance heuristics, or assumptions about someone's abilities, character or personality traits based on his or her appearance, are commonly used "information shortcuts" employed to simplify the process of making a decision. Evidence from existing studies suggests that the use of cues in candidate evaluation is common. What remains unclear, however, is what happens between initial impressions and final decisions. Appearance-based trait inferences are one-time appraisals often made early in the process, but modern campaigns last for months and individuals receive extensive information. What is the relationship between early perceptions and the type and amount of information that individuals later choose to learn and incorporate into their evaluations and decisions?

This study will be the first to consider how aappearance influences the process of learning and information search over a longer horizon. To achieve its goal, the project will conduct a series of three experiments using the Dynamic Process Tracing Environment (DTPE), a web-based computer program that allows researchers to mimic the constant flow of information and thus to track the content, sequence and amount of information accessed by subjects. As such, DTPE provides a unique opportunity to examine the entire process--from first exposure until she is eventually asked to make a choice. The three experiments in this study ask subjects to participate in simulated campaigns in which they must gather information about mock candidates. Different aspects of candidate appearance are systematically varied, and analyses will explore the effects of these manipulations on the relationship between appearance, the information that subjects search for, a subject's ultimate evaluations, and a subject's final choice. This study will address the ways in which stereotypes based on race and gender, and perceptions of traits like competence based on "snap judgments" of someone's facial features, interact to influence overall evaluations.

This project also makes broader contributions. The electoral process is central to any democracy. As American society becomes increasingly diverse, it is increasingly important that we understand the implications of cues based on physical appearance.

Project Report

How does a candidate’s physical appearance influence the way voters learn about and evaluate him or her? Prior research has shown that people make assumptions about candidates based on traits like race, gender, and the composition of a person’s facial features, and that these commonly used "information shortcuts" are used in order to help simplify the process of making a vote decision. In particular, these features can convey information about someone’s personality traits, issue positions, and viability as a political leader. Often, these assumptions based on nothing more than how they look can put some candidates at a disadvantage. In particular, this study focuses on perceived competence—that is, how competent a candidate is considered to be based on different aspects of their appearance. It has been found that women and African American candidates are often perceived as less competent, for example, than men and white candidates. At the same time, people make snap judgments about others’ personality traits (including competence) based on the composition of their facial features (how far apart one’s eyes are and the shape of one’s jaw, e.g). Of course, someone who looks competent or incompetent is not necessarily so, and many kinds of information, other than what a candidate looks like are usually available during a political campaign. This is especially true of high-level, national campaigns. This study, then, seeks to determine the relationship between a voter’s perceptions of a candidate’s competence based on appearance, and the type and amount of information they later choose to learn about that candidate and incorporate into their evaluations and vote decisions. Through a series of three computer-based experiments that asked subjects to participate in simulated political campaigns, this study examined the ways in which subjects learned and gathered information when a number of different mock candidates were in the race. Different aspects of the candidates’ appearances were systematically varied, including race, gender, and how competent the candidate looked, and analyses explored the effects of these manipulations on the relationship between a candidate’s appearance, the information subjects searched for, ultimate evaluations of that candidate, and a subject’s final vote choice. Findings from these experiments suggest that when a candidate has multiple physical features that convey incompetence, that he or she is at a particular disadvantage. Race and competence cues reinforced each other, for example, such that white candidates who faced black candidates in the primary election were seen as more competent than white candidates who faced other white candidates. This effect was even more dramatic when the white candidate was competent-looking and the black candidate was incompetent looking. These white candidates (of both genders) who faced black candidates also seemed more likable and were more likely to win the subject's vote. Further, these studies find that when voters are exposed to information that contradicts an incompetent appearance, the effects of that incompetent appearance can be overcome. Finally, I found that competence--both in appearance and in the substantive information available about a candidate--is an especially important predictor in determining the success or failure of female candidates. Women who either looked incompetent or were portrayed as incompetent in the other information available about them did far worse than incompetent male candidates of either race, and women who both looked incompetent and were portrayed as incompetent in the substantive information provided about them did especially poorly. The same is not true of men--white men, in particular, seemed to be immune to the effects of competence-related variables when they faced either a woman or a black opponent. As our political leadership becomes ever more diverse in terms of race, gender, and other such attributes, it is becoming increasingly important that we understand the implications of these sorts of visual cues for public officials and voters, alike. Greater understanding of this issue is particularly crucial since judgments based on someone’s physical appearance can lead voters to come to inaccurate conclusions about potential leaders. There is no guarantee that someone who looks competent actually is, for example, and common stereotypes about women and African American candidates may be contributing to representational inequalities in our institutions of government. The results of this study suggest that candidates may be able to conduct their campaigns in specific ways that could help them to overcome voters’ initial stereotypes, and voters may be wise to take into account how their first impressions could be influencing their later judgments and decisions. The results of this study will hopefully shed some light on how candidates can more effectively run a campaign and help voters to make political decisions that are less influenced by stereotypes and bias.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Social and Economic Sciences (SES)
Standard Grant (Standard)
Application #
Program Officer
Erik Herron
Project Start
Project End
Budget Start
Budget End
Support Year
Fiscal Year
Total Cost
Indirect Cost
Rutgers University
New Brunswick
United States
Zip Code