A surprising new discovery shows that unconsciously people are more likely to vote the candidate whose facial features are more similar to their own. So, does a familiar face attract more votes?

In a paper that is to be published in the December issue of Public Opinion Quarterly, Jeremy Bailenson, an assistant professor of communication, and Shanto Iyengar, the Harry and Norman Chandler Professor in Communication use their experiments to prove that in some cases voting is no longer based solely on rational ideas but also on what the subconscious dictates. The main question is whether this influences the outcome of any elections and if so, to what extent.

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“The field of political science has been dominated by the main ideal that voters are rational and that voters base their decisions on substance and issues and policy,” Bailenson said. “We wanted to say, ‘Well, how much of our decisions are actually based on superficial qualities?'”

The fact that people are more likely to be helpful and to empathize with people with similar looks had already been proved by scientists. In order to understand the true implications of this discovery, Bailenson and Iyengar conducted a series of simple tests during the 2004 presidential elections. Using non-sophisticated equipment, they morphed Al Gore and George Bush’s photos with the ones belonging to the 240 subjects of the experiment. At first, some of the subjects were shown unmodified photos of the candidates, the results being similar to the ones of the national voting. Another group got morphed George Bush’s photos while the others received modified Al Gore’s images. In both cases the results were stunning: the numbers differed with up to 7 to 13 point advantage.

During the Florida gubernatorial election in 2006 the results maintained steady. However, when an individual has strong political opinions or a certain inclination for a candidate, this influence is not strong enough to change his or her opinion.

“When you look at who’s really swapping their votes, it’s the independent voters and weak party affiliates,” Bailenson said. “It’s the moderate people. If your heart and mind are set on voting for George Bush, this is not going to change your mind.”

This discovery could have unimaginable effects; however, none of the researchers have ever heard of any technique of this kind used to attract voters especially as the subjects of the experiments were outraged by the idea of being manipulated in such manner. Still, creating morphed photos is quite cheap, thus making it possible for a candidate to try and change the outcome of an election by unscrupulous methods. “From an ethical standpoint, I’d hope we never see that happen,” Bailenson said.