Rewrite the Headlines: Will a square jaw help Trump win in 2016?
At the end of January, we were delighted to announce the winners of Rewrite the Headlines, our national competition encouraging school children and students to explore how the latest research is turned into headline news. You can view the full list of winners here, and over the first few weeks of February we’ll be showcasing the top entries in both the school and undergraduate categories. We begin with one of the commended undergraduate entries, from Fraser Barker at the University of Strathclyde.
Will a square jaw help Trump win in 2016?
Psephology, or the study of voting behaviour, has sought to understand why it is we vote the way we do. Many theories have been proposed and recent research suggests that nonverbal cues play an important role in influencing the electoral success of political candidates. With the 2016 US Presidential Elections approaching and polls suggesting a tight race regardless of the chosen party nominees, candidates will be looking for any research findings they can apply that might help them win over key voters. The Daily Mail reported on research that might be of interest to those running for the Oval Office next year.
What Does the Report Say?
The study, published in Political Communication, was conducted by Lasse Laustsen and Michael Bang Petersen and built on previous literature that had established the importance of nonverbal cues in political communication. Laustsen and Petersen expected to find that conservative voters would be attracted to leaders with ‘dominant’ characteristics whilst liberals would likely to follow non-dominant looking politicians.
The report was the result of five separate studies conducted across Denmark and the United States, covering local and national politics as well as what the researchers termed a “non-political” setting.
In Study 1, 322 political science students from a Danish university were used and in Study 2, the American version, 392 subjects were recruited through the YouGov survey agency. They were asked to imagine themselves in a tribal society where they had to choose a leader to deal with either an impending flood (the “No Conflict” group) or another tribe preparing to attack (the “Conflict” group). They were presented with two images of male faces designed so one would look dominant and the other would not.
In Study 3, 646 volunteers rated 257 candidates from city council elections in Denmark based on seven different categories based on their photos. These average ratings were then compared with how they had performed in the election.
Studies 4 and 5 were also based in Danish universities and Study 4 was completed by 101 political science students whilst 331 students from another university were recruited for Study 5. Study 4 and 5 involved using photos of the same well-known Minister and but a lesser-known member of parliament for each study. Subjects were presented with the same story and communication as well as an image of both men in each study, but the images were either distorted to look more or less dominant or had been left unaltered.
The findings of the report point to evidence that people with different ideological beliefs react differently to facial types according to these preconceived ideas. Generally, they found that conservative voters were more likely to be persuaded by a dominant-style face structure and the reverse was true for liberal voters, in accordance with their hypothesis. The paper stresses the fact that the effect of this is diminished when the source is a well-known figure and voters have a previous impression of them. In fact, it makes reference to the Presidential elections in the United States as a case when they would expect the observed effects to be lessened. The research itself is also more concerned with how political messages are received by potential voters than the direct effect of physical traits on voting behaviour.
What Did the Media Say?
The reporting of the research by the media in the UK mainly consisted of an article written for the Daily Mail. The article was largely misleading and applied the findings of the research incorrectly. Whilst it is understandable that a story about the specific US Presidential election in 2016 is perhaps more likely to shift copies than an article about the general preferences of ideological voters, it does not excuse the misuse of the research by the Daily Mail.
There is a good use of quotes in the article from both the researchers and other people involved in the subject matter and the article points to areas of potential further research by asking questions towards the end, which enhances the quality of the reporting. However, the quotes are not from the research itself and at times appear disjointed with the actual published paper.
The articles desire to be relevant to current affairs means it has falsely reported on the research. As mentioned above, the research takes care to stress that the results found here are not transferable to a highly exposed election such as the US Presidential race. The research conducted was also largely carried out in Denmark as opposed to the United States and therefore are vague generalisations and should not be directly applied to specific elections. The newspaper article consistently makes references to Republican and Democrat voters as well as politicians such as Donald Trump, who aren’t mentioned in the actual research findings. Similarly, the obsession with relating the study to voting behaviour has meant that the intended field of research, political communication, has been lost. The line between these subjects may be blurred at times but as journalists, it is important to recognise the differences that separate the topics.
The results from the research conducted by Laustsen and Petersen are interesting enough on their own and provide a base for further studies to be conducted on. However, due to the researchers’ hesitation to make any bold claims, as is understandable in academic work, the media has misappropriated their findings in an article of little true reporting on the original work. Of course, the study has weaknesses such as the fact that it only involved research from two countries, with the vast majority of the data came from Denmark, and made generalisations about conservative and liberal voters across borders. In summary, it appears the actual research can provide little comfort to any potential Presidential candidate whose hopes were raised by the Daily Mail’s article. Sorry, Donald…
Fraser Barker, University of Strathclyde
Laustsen, L. and Petersen, M. B. (2015) ‘Winning Faces vary by Ideology: How Nonverbal Source Cues Influence Election and Communication Success in Politics’, Political Communication, [online] pp. 1-24, available from: http://www.tandfonline.com [accessed: 05/01/2015]
Liberatore, S. (2015), ‘What Republicans look for in a president: Conservative voters like politicians with a deep voice and square jaw, claims study’, The Daily Mail [online], 25th November, available from: http://www.dailymail.co.uk, [accessed: 05/01/2015]
Prizes were supported by the British Academy, the University of Strathclyde, the School of Chemistry at the University of St. Andrews, the School of Social Work and Social Policy at the University of Strathclyde, the University of Dundee School of Life Sciences, and the Particle Physics Experiment Research Group at the University of Edinburgh, the Social Research Association, the Scottish History Society, and Palgrave Macmillan.
Competition details can be accessed at https://researchtheheadlines.org/rewritetheheadlines, and the full list of winners is available here.