Study measures politicians’ honesty via photos

A new study by researchers at the California Institute of Technology says people can predict something about a politician’s honesty just by looking at them.

According to the Caltech study, people shown photos of politicians they’re not familiar with can make better-than-chance judgments about whether those politicians have been convicted of corruption, even without knowing anything about them or their careers.

And one thing they seem to be picking up on is how wide the politicians’ faces are, researchers said.

Face wideness – technically, the facial width-to-height ratio – has been shown in previous research to be correlated with aggressive behavior in men. That is, men with wider faces have a greater tendency to be aggressive and threatening toward others than do men with thinner faces, the study concluded. Studies have also shown that wide-faced men are perceived by others to be more threatening than men with thinner faces.

The Caltech study is the first to show that observers have a knack for picking out corrupt politicians based on just a portrait and that observers perceive politicians with wider faces as more corruptible.

Study co-author Chujun Lin, a Caltech graduate student, said it might be difficult to understand why you can look at others’ faces and tell something about them, “but there is no doubt that people form first impressions from faces all the time,” Lin said. “For example, on dating sites people often reject potential matches based on pictures without reading the profile.”

The study, which appears in the journal Psychological Science, was also reported in mid-September on EurekAlert, the online publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The research was based on pictures of 72 politicians who held office at the state or federal level, half of whom had been convicted of corruption and half of whom had clean records. Their images were presented randomly to 100 volunteers, who were asked to rate them on how corruptible, dishonest, selfish, trustworthy and generous they looked.