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Female Politicians’ Success tied to Facial Features, Study Reports

Update Date: May 15, 2014 12:06 PM EDT

Even though appearances cannot accurately depict personality traits, people tend to use facial features to assess each other. In a new study headed by Dartmouth College, researchers examined the relationship between a female politician's success and her facial features. They found that female politicians with more feminine faces appear to have more success at the ballot box.

In this study, the team had utilize a software program called MouseTracker, which was developed by the study's senior author Jon Freeman, an assistant professor and director of the Social Cognitive and Neural Sciences Lab at Dartmouth. The device works to measure participants' real-time hand movements via a mouse during psychological experiments. The movements provide insight into the participants' psychological responses over time. The software is currently being used to measure several behaviors and attitudes, such as cognitive impairments and subtle racial biases.

"Individuals are highly sensitive to gendered facial cues, and these cues are processed within only milliseconds after seeing another's face," Freeman said in the press release. "It's important to examine how facial cues could inadvertently affect female politicians' electoral success, especially given the possibility of a female U.S. president in the near future and the rising number of women in Congress."

The team recruited almost 300 participants and tracked their mouse movements when they were showed pictures of politicians' faces. The politicians were either winners or runners-up in certain elections between 1998 and 2010. The participants were asked to vote for one of the two politicians after categorizing them as having male or female features regardless of their gender. 10 percent of the participants performed the experiment at a controlled lab setting in Dartmouth. The remaining 90 percent took the test over the Internet.

The researchers found that participants were less likely to vote for the female politician that they categorized as having male features. This finding suggests that when participants had no information on the politicians' stance, they were more likely to vote for the one with more feminine features.

"We show that subtle uncertainty during the initial processing of a face's gender predicts the electoral success or failure of female politicians, and this is a unique effect not explained by perceived competence or attractiveness," Freeman stated. "A female politician's success was related to how feminine or masculine her face was perceived less than one half-second after its initial exposure, suggesting that the way a face's gender is rapidly processed may translate into real-world political outcomes."

The study was published in the journal, Social Psychological and Personality Science.

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