Baby-Face Blues

Departing Ontario PC leader Tim Hudak: In addition to campaign gaffes, did having a "baby face" create doubts about competence, as some academic research suggests?

Departing Ontario PC leader Tim Hudak: In addition to campaign gaffes, did having a “baby face” create doubts about competence, as some academic research suggests?

Whether we the public like it or not, imagery can make or break a political career. The image of U.S. vice-president Richard Nixon sweating during the 1960 presidential debate helped seal his fate in one of the closest campaigns in that country’s history. Twenty-eight years later, the somewhat absurd image of another presidential candidate, Michael Dukakis, grinning while riding around in a tank similarly sank his presidential campaign.

Others were helped by their cultivated images: Canada’s Brian Mulroney and Australia’s Bob Hawke rapidly ascended to the prime ministership of their respective countries, despite neither having had any prior cabinet experience, in no small part because they both fit the image of a prime minister.

In addition to a lacklustre campaign that bounced from controversy to controversy, could Ontario Progressive Conservative leader Tim Hudak’s campaign to become Premier of Ontario — which ended in defeat Thursday as Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals were re-elected to a fourth term with an unexpectedly large majority — been hindered by Hudak’s image?

While Hudak made no visual gaffes akin to federal Tory leader Bob Stanfield fumbling a football during the 1974 campaign or Canadian Alliance leader Stockwell Day’s ill-advised decision to arrive at a news conference by jet-ski during the 2000 campaign, the 46-year-old Hudak (pictured above) was one of the most noticeably “baby-faced” Canadian politicians to lead a high-profile campaign in recent times.

As three Duke University academics noted in a 2010 U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, having a “baby face” — characterized by a high forehead, relatively large eyes and small nose and a round face and chin — is not always an asset for someone trying to reach the top:

“…[The perception of a person being competent] is negatively and significantly correlated with baby-facedness, with a correlation of 25.3%, which is significant at a 1% level. Essentially, the subjects are classifying CEOs with mature-faced attributes as competent . . . Our results are concerning particularly in the light of our findings that there is no relationship between competent looks of the CEO and firm performance.”

This finding came five years after an article by Leslie Zebrowitz of Brandeis University and Joann Montepare of Emerson College was published in Science magazine, with very similar conclusions:

“Babyfaced individuals within various demographic groups are perceived as less competent, whether by their own or another group. Its impact can be seen even for famous politicians: When images of former U.S. presidents Reagan and Kennedy were morphed to increase babyfacedness, their perceived dominance, strength and cunning decreased significantly.”

There is, alas, good news for the baby-faced people of the world: although often associated at first glance with the baby-like qualities of being “submissive, naive and weak”, as Zebrowitz and Montepare note, having a baby-face can be an asset when the ability to convey warmth and honesty is critical. They also draw attention to other research by Princeton University’s Alexander Todorov, showing that “more babyfaced men tend to be slightly more intelligent . . . more highly educated, contrary to impressions of their naïveté, and more assertive and more likely to earn military awards, contrary to impressions of their submissiveness and weakness.”

When things go from bad to worse, there are even indications that baby-faced defendants in court are better at defending themselves against charges of intentional wrongdoing — but more likely to suffer a judge’s wrath when accused of negligence.

None of this is a defence of or an excuse for a lousy campaign; but the tendency for a more mature face to be favoured when competence is a campaign issue is something to be kept in mind by all political observers and news junkies.

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About theviewfromseven
A lone wolf and a bit of a contrarian who sometimes has something to share.

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