By December 27, 2011 0 Comments Read More →

Appearances Influence our Decisions – Are you Surprised?

Appearances Influence our Decisions – Are you Surprised?


During election campaigns, we’re supposed to make an informed decision based on information we collect before we vote.

However, our brain isn’t always so rational. In a fraction of a second, we make sometimes irrational decisions, including who to vote for. Knowing this has important implications for Managers and Leaders.

A recent Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) news item on the current affairs show called  "The Current" illustrates this very well, referring to several studies where both adults and even kids were able to pick the winners of past elections 70% of the time, even without knowing anything about the candidates - simply based on a snapshot of the candidate’s faces.

Listen to this episode of The Current for the story called “Your Brain on Politics” (starting around 2:35 of the broadcast)

The research is based on work by political psychologist Alex Toterov

In the research, people were showed two headshot pictures and asked them who looked more competent. They selected the one that they felt was the most competent, simply based on the photograph.

In fact, the pictures were political candidates looking for senate seats. In an incredible 70% of the time, the people selected most competent had actually won the election.

This result was tested by others using a similar study but a different country’s candidates to ensure they wouldn’t have had any knowledge about the winners. Again, a 70% rate of selecting the successful candidate merely on looks alone.

So another study used two countries looking at pictures of candidates in different country elections. The results were similar to the original results, and in fact, they all agreed on who looked most competent, even from different cultures, and they got very similar results.

The same type of study was run with children (approx age 9-13) , starting with a game about a ship. The children were then asked to rate faces to decide who they would want to be the captain of their boat. The faces were candidates from elections before most were born. Individually they selected the winning candidate 70% of the time and as a group, the results was closer to 90%.

These studies suggest that the cover is in fact more important than the book itself, and the thinking is that human beings are hardwired based on evolutional cues to make a decision based on appearances alone. Other research has dealt with this issue as well, from a perception of attractiveness, for instance, where symmetry was one factor that was unconsciously identified as attractive, on the principal that a symmetrical face had better genes.

In this case, one theory is that humans developed a sense of what ‘competence’ looks like within a split second as a defence and survival instinct that may have served us well in the stone age. Unfortunately, this, like other base instincts, has lost its purpose to a certain extent and tends to get in the way of rational thought.

What does this mean for managers and leaders? Quite simply, it’s important to realize that how people look has a disproportionate influence on our decision making process about people. It’s something we should try hard to guard about, since as we know, appearances don’t always reflect capability. That’s been demonstrated both in business and in politics.

About Michel Theriault

Michel is the founder of Success Fuel for Managers. He is an author, speaker and consultant focusing on topics relevant to Managers and aspiring Managers in businesses of all sizes who want to get results, get attention, and get ahead. He is also a contributor to Forbes and AllBusiness Experts . Michel is available for speaking engagements, training and consulting. Connect with him or send an email.

Posted in: Decision Making

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