Face-Off: The Importance of Appearance in Elections



We’ve all heard the saying: “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” In the political context, this mantra appears to be particularly relevant, since the ability of politicians to represent their constituents has little to do with their physical appearance or their attractiveness.

Conventional wisdom in Hong Kong holds that voters in Legislative Council (LegCo) elections cast ballots based on political beliefs, not on looks.[1] Indeed, in a poll conducted by the Hong Kong Research Association of 1,071 eligible voters in the New Territories East LegCo by-election, 51% stated that the most important factor in deciding a candidate was political background and political stance.[2] 19% stated that “previous work performance” was the most important consideration, while 18% responded with “political platform.” Only 2% of the participants stated that appearance was the primary factor in their candidate choice.

However, in many foreign countries such as the United States, surveys have shown that facial characteristics do play a significant role in formulating voter decisions.[3] This is because facial traits are highly correlated with subconscious voter judgments regarding the perceived competence of candidates. Even when factoring in alternative explanations for voter behaviour such as gender, race, incumbency, and age, competence judgments based on candidate faces can still be used to predict actual electoral outcomes.

Notwithstanding the results of the Hong Kong Research Association poll, is it possible that candidate appearance played a significant role in the New Territories East by-election? Answering this question, in the absence of exit poll data, is extremely difficult. But it may be interesting to analyse the by-election from the perspective of appearance in order to see if the research on facial competence judgments in foreign countries could apply to Hong Kong.

Alternative Explanations

First, it is necessary to overview alternative explanations for voter behaviour. The most obvious explanation is that the political stance of the candidates was the most important factor. New Territories East is regarded as a “pan-democrat stronghold.”[4] Of the seven candidates, the winner Alvin Yeung Ngok-kiu and the runner-up Holden Chow Ho-ding are from established political parties, the Civic Party and the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB).[5] Two other candidates, Wong Sing-chi and Edward Leung Tin-kei, hailed from newly-formed parties “Third Side” and “Hong Kong Indigenous” respectively.[6] The remaining candidates were all independents, although one candidate, Christine Fong Kwok-Shan, was previously a member of the Liberal Party and has been an independent district councillor since 2008.[7]

Each of the seven candidates could be described as supporting different political viewpoints. For example, the Civic Party is part of the pan-democratic alliance, and Alvin Yeung has the support of pan-democrat parties.[8] Meanwhile, Holden Chow is the vice-chairman of the DAB, the flagship of the pro-establishment. Third Side describes itself as a “moderate” party, and Wong Sing-chi has criticised both the pan-democrats and the pro-establishment groups. Finally, Hong Kong Indigenous is a “localist” group that supports radical protest measures. Edward Leung, who was involved in the Mong Kok riot, supports Hong Kong independence and advocates for the usage of “any means of resistance to oppression.”[9]

Therefore, voters in the New Territories East by-election enjoyed a broad range of choices across the political spectrum, ranging from localism to pro-government views. As a result it can be argued that voters made their choices primarily based on the political beliefs of each candidate. This is especially the case since the election was for a LegCo seat, and the LegCo is responsible for legislating controversial issues such as electoral reform.[10] Also, before the by-election, neither the pan-democrats nor the pro-establishment camp controlled a majority of LegCo seats voted by geographic constituencies. The election offered a chance to break the deadlock and pass motions such as filibuster reforms which require majority support from both the geographic and the functional constituencies of the LegCo.

Another important factor in determining voter choice is the degree of experience that each candidate has in the constituency. The more experience a candidate has serving as a representative of the area, the more comfortable voters could be in supporting him or her. For instance, Christine Fong has served as a district councillor in Sai Kung since 2008, and Wong Sing-chi served as a LegCo member representing New Territories East from 2000 to 2004 and 2008 to 2012.[11] By contrast, Holden Chow has little experience in the constituency, and he has only served as a district councillor in the Islands district since 2015.[12]

Appearance and Electoral Outcomes in Foreign Countries

Still, even when party affiliation and incumbency are taken into account, numerous surveys across several foreign countries have found that some voters tend to rely on facial appearances when choosing which candidates to elect. For instance, a study conducted by the University of California at Irvine found that candidates judged to be highly competent by participants based on their candidate photographs[13] outperformed less competent-looking candidates by 13%.[14] This trend is especially prominent in “low-information elections” such as local council races when voters lack substantive information on candidate backgrounds.[15]

Why do American voters use facial cues so prominently in making electoral decisions? As an initial matter, human beings draw inferences about the underlying characteristics of others based on their appearance. Moreover, these inferences often occur spontaneously and rapidly, “leaving little room for deliberate thought processes to inhibit or correct the resulting judgments.” In other words, “first impressions” are difficult to reverse because “the speed, automaticity, and implicit nature of appearance-based trait inferences make them particularly hard to correct.”

It should come as no surprise, then, that appearance is also significant in the political realm. A study conducted by Princeton University psychologist Alexander Todorov showed that facial competence judgments accurately predicted the vote share of real senatorial and gubernatorial elections. While the study assessed many character traits, such as extraversion and agreeableness, perceived competence rankings were the most reliable predictor of electoral results. Candidates judged by participants to be more competent-looking won 69% of subsequent gubernatorial races and 72% of Senate races, even controlling for the typical advantages that incumbent candidates have over other candidates.

Competence is one of the most important traits that voters look for in a political candidate, and competence judgments are highly correlated with judgments of dependability, stability, and honesty. Todorov’s research has found that the degree to which appearance-based trait judgments predicted election outcomes is a function of how important they were judged to be for a political representatives. For instance, since participants valued honesty highly in a candidate, their judgments of honesty based on candidate photos were strongly correlated with electoral outcomes. Conversely, judgements of introversion were not found to be correlated with electoral outcomes, since this trait was perceived to be less important.

Initial impressions of competence based on facial traits are often made in a split second. For example, Todorov conducted another study which showed that competence judgments made after 100 milliseconds of exposure to real political candidate’s faces with no additional information were almost as accurate in predicting actual election outcomes as judgments made after unlimited exposure to the candidate faces.[16] This proves that initial impressions of candidate competence can be formed rapidly and effortlessly from a single photo, without any deliberation whatsoever; moreover, “once formed, these impressions can influence voting decisions, and this influence may not even be recognised by voters.”

Most of these studies involved American participants and American candidates. But the appearance effect is also apparent when foreign, unfamiliar faces are introduced. A study conducted by Antonakis and Dalgas demonstrated that facial competence judgments of French parliamentary candidates made by Swiss participants could predict the results of French elections.[17] Additionally, judgments made by Swiss children (aged five to thirteen) were just as accurate in predicting French electoral outcomes as those made by Swiss adults. Thus, the Antonakis and Dalgas study appears to support the theory that “appearance-based trait inferences develop quite early and are surprisingly stable throughout a person’s life.”

There is even evidence based on a study by Benjamin and Shapiro to suggest that purely visual cues can outweigh verbal cues in determining electoral outcomes.[18] In their study, participants were able to predict electoral outcomes more accurately when they were shown 10-second silent debate clips as compared to when they were shown the clips with audio included. Since the audio of the clips enabled participants to infer the candidate’s policy preferences and party affiliation, this is a very surprising result since it is commonly assumed that voters make decisions based in large part on the political beliefs of candidates.

According to Todorov, however, this finding is not so unusual after all. He argues that many voters make decisions from rapid, unreflective and appearance-based impressions, not from more deliberative consideration. Of course, the impact of appearance on voter decisions is more significant when the voters are less knowledgeable about the candidates. Politically knowledgeable voters are less likely to use appearance as a factor and are more likely to decide who to vote for after thoughtful deliberation. Thus, Todorov believes that democratic societies should try to raise the political awareness and knowledgeability of all voters in an effort to reduce the disproportionate impact of factors such as appearance on elections. Parties seeking to take advantage of these trends could focus on nominating candidates who are perceived to be highly competent-looking based on independent pre-election surveys.

Your Face, Your Fate

It is difficult to gauge the applicability of these surveys for the New Territories East by-election in the absence of polls or surveys. As compared to the District Council elections, the by-election received extensive coverage in television and the press. Televised debates were held on TVB, NowTV and RTHK in Chinese and English, and flyers featuring the candidates’ party affiliation were visible across the constituency.[19] Thus, facial as well as non-facial candidate information was widely communicated throughout the region.

Given the importance of the LegCo in political affairs, as well as the fact that the election was held weeks after the Mong Kok riot, it could be argued that the race was a “high-information election” where the average voter was quite knowledgeable about the candidates’ beliefs. This would imply that most voters were less likely to use appearance as a factor, and more likely to weigh considerations such as political beliefs and party affiliation instead.

Nonetheless, even if most voters were not inclined to support candidates based solely on their facial features, there is still evidence to suggest that candidates in the by-election invested time and effort in cultivating their public image. For instance, during the televised debates on TVB, RTHK and NowTV, both Alvin Yeung and Holden Chow wore suits and ties. In most public appearances, as well as in their promotional materials, both candidates are also wearing suits and ties. By contrast, Edward Leung from Hong Kong Indigenous is rarely depicted wearing a suit and tie. This may reflect an intentional effort by Chow and Yeung to convey a more professional image, which is also in line with the images of their respective parties. Leung, by contrast, could be trying to convey more of a youthful and casual aura.

There is a saying amongst Hong Kong netizens that goes: “Your face, your fate.” Most of the time this phrase is invoked in jest or in self-mockery. However, extensive research has proven that appearance-based competence inferences can predict electoral outcomes in many countries, including the United States and France. In highly politicised Hong Kong, little research has been done on this topic. A survey along the lines of the studies conducted overseas could be very helpful in determining whether your face truly determines your fate when it comes to LegCo and District Council elections.

1 Legco by-election fight heats up as ‘battle’ slogan attacked, EJ Insight, February 16, 2016, http://www.ejinsight.com/20160216-legco-by-election-fight-heats-as-battle-slogan-attacked/.
2 選民對2016年新界東選區補選的意見調查, 香港研究協會, February 20, 2016, http://rahk.org/research/1382/1382chart.pdf.
3 Christopher Olivola and Alexander Todorov, Elected in 100 milliseconds: Appearance-based Trait Inferences and Voting, Journal of Nonverbal Behaviour, January 23, 2010, http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10919-009-0082-1#page-1.
4 Jeffie Lam and Ng Kang-chung, Rising young Hong Kong politician Holden Chow joins Legislative Council by-election fray, South China Morning Post, January 3, 2016, http://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/politics/article/1897822/rising-young-hong-kong-politician-holden-chow-joins.
5 Seven validly nominated candidates for Legislative Council New Territories East by-election, Info.gov.hk, Press Releases, January 29, 2016, http://www.info.gov.hk/gia/general/201601/29/P201601290396.htm.
6 Wong Sing-chi was formerly a member of the Democratic Party while he was in the LegCo. However, he was expelled from the Democratic Party last year due to his defiance of the party line. Thus, he can be considered as a moderate member of the pan-democratic camp. The “Third Side” party is made up of former pan-democrats like Wong who now espouse a middle ground, providing an option for voters who sympathize with the pan-democrats but oppose their more radical policies.
7 Chris Lau, District councillor denies assault on Hong Kong lawmaker, South China Morning Post, September 3, 2015, http://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/law-crime/article/1854793/district-councillor-denies-assault-hong-kong-lawmaker.
8 Ng Kang-chung, Former activist Alvin Yeung to run in Legislative Council by-election, South China Morning Post, December 21, 2015, http://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/politics/article/1893610/former-activist-alvin-yeung-run-election.
9 Chris Lau, Hong Kong localist group ‘knows no bounds’ when it comes to protesting, says activist and by-election candidate, South China Morning Post, February 16, 2016, http://www.scmp.com/news/article/1913594/hong-kong-localist-group-knows-no-bounds-when-it-comes-protesting-says-activist.
10 Tony Cheung and Owen Fung, ‘Lay down the law’: Basic Law Committee member Rao Geping calls for Hong Kong national security legislation after Mong Kok riot, South China Morning Post, February 16, 2016, http://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/politics/article/1913596/lay-down-law-basic-law-committee-member-rao-geping-calls.
11 Legco election results: New Territories East, Info.gov.hk, Press Releases, September 8, 2008, http://www.info.gov.hk/gia/general/200809/08/P200809080048.htm.
12 Jeffie Lam and Ng Kang-chung, Rising young Hong Kong politician Holden Chow joins Legislative Council by-election fray, South China Morning Post, January 3, 2016, http://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/politics/article/1897822/rising-young-hong-kong-politician-holden-chow-joins.
13 A candidate was defined as being “more competent-looking” if survey participants had ranked his or her photograph highly on a numbered scale with regards to perceived competence, relative to his or her opponent in the election.
14 Shawn Rosenberg, The Image and the Vote: The Effect of Candidate Presentation on Voter Preference, American Journal of Political Science, February 1986, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2111296?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents.
15 Christopher Olivola and Alexander Todorov, Elected in 100 milliseconds: Appearance-based Trait Inferences and Voting, Journal of Nonverbal Behaviour, January 23, 2010, http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10919-009-0082-1#page-1.
16 Charles Ballew and Alexander Todorov, Predicting political elections from rapid and unreflective face judgments, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, November 13, 2007, http://www.pnas.org/content/104/46/17948.full.pdf.
17 John Antonakis and Olaf Dalgas, Predicting elections: Child’s play, Science Magazine, February 27, 2009, http://science.sciencemag.org/content/323/5918/1183.
18 Daniel Benjamin and Jesse Shapiro, Thin-slice forecasts of gubernatorial elections, Review of Economics and Statistics, November 2006, http://www.nber.org/papers/w12660.
19 Legco by-election fight heats up as ‘battle’ slogan attacked, EJ Insight, February 16, 2016, http://www.ejinsight.com/20160216-legco-by-election-fight-heats-as-battle-slogan-attacked/.