Judging People by Their Covers - The Social Unconscious

Subliminal: how your unconscious mind rules your behavior - Leonard Mlodinow 2013

Judging People by Their Covers
The Social Unconscious

There is a road from the eye to the heart that does not go through the intellect. —G. K. CHESTERTON

IF YOU ARE a man, being compared to a cowbird probably doesn’t sound like a compliment, and it probably isn’t. The male cowbird, you see, is a real slacker: he doesn’t stake out a territory, take care of the baby cowbirds, or bring home a paycheck (which scientists call “resources”). In cowbird society, as one research paper asserted, “females gain few direct benefits from males.”1 Apparently all a male cowbird is good for—or after—is one thing. But the one thing a male cowbird does have to offer is very desirable, so female cowbirds seek out male cowbirds, at least in mating season.

To an amorous female cowbird, the equivalent of a chiseled face or great pecs is the male cowbird’s song. Since it is hard to smile when you have a beak, when she hears a song she finds attractive, a female will often signal interest with her own seductive vocalization, called “chatter.” And, like an eager teenage girl of our own species, if a female cowbird is led to believe that other females find a certain male attractive, she will find that male attractive, too. In fact, suppose that prior to mating season a girl cowbird repeatedly hears recordings of a boy’s voice followed by the admiring chatter of other nubile females. Will that girl cowbird exercise the independent judgment our sober parents all urge? No. When mating season comes, upon hearing that male’s song, she will automatically respond with displays inviting him to mate with her. Why do I say her response is automatic, and not part of some thoughtful strategy aimed at wooing the fellow with whom she’d like to share birdseed in her golden years? Because upon hearing the male’s song, the female will commence her come-on behavior even if that song is coming not from a live bird but from a stereo speaker.2

We humans may share many behaviors with lower animals, but flirting with a stereo speaker is surely not one of them. Or is it? We’ve seen that people unintentionally express their thoughts and feelings even when they might prefer to keep them secret, but do we also react automatically to nonverbal social cues? Do we respond, like the smitten cowbird, even in situations in which our logical and conscious minds would deem the reaction inappropriate or undesirable?

A few years ago, a Stanford communications professor named Clifford Nass sat a couple hundred computer-savvy students in front of computers that spoke to them in prerecorded voices.3 The purpose of the exercise, the students were told, was to prepare for a test with the assistance of a computerized tutoring session. The topics taught ranged from “mass media” to “love and relationships.” After completing the tutoring and the test, the students received an evaluation of their performance, delivered either by the same computer that taught them or by another computer. Finally, the students themselves completed the equivalent of a course evaluation form, in which they rated both the course and their computer tutor.

Nass was not really interested in conducting a computer course on mass media or love and relationships. These earnest students were Nass’s cowbirds, and in a series of experiments he and some colleagues studied them carefully, gathering data on the way they responded to the lifeless electronic computer, gauging whether they would react to a machine’s voice as if the machine had human feelings, motivations, or even a human gender. It would be absurd, of course, to expect the students to say “Excuse me” if they bumped into the monitor. That would be a conscious reaction, and in their conscious ruminations, these students certainly realized that the machine was not a person. But Nass was interested in another level of their behavior, behavior the students did not purposely engage in, social behavior he describes as “automatic and unconscious.”

In one of the experiments, the researchers arranged for half their subjects to be tutored and evaluated by computers with male voices, and half by computers with female voices. Other than that, there was no difference in the sessions—the male computers presented the same information in the same sequence as the females, and the male and female computers delivered identical assessments of the students’ performance. As we’ll see in Chapter 7, if the tutors had been real people, the students’ evaluations of their teachers would probably reflect certain gender stereotypes. For example, consider the stereotype that women know more about relationship issues than men. Ask a woman what bonds couples together, and you might expect her to respond, “Open communication and shared intimacy.” Ask a guy, and you might expect him to say, “Huh?” Studies show that as a result of this stereotype, even when a woman and a man have equal ability in that area, the woman is often perceived as more competent. Nash sought to discover whether the students would apply those same gender stereotypes to the computers.

They did. Those who had female-voiced tutors for the love-and-relationships material rated their teachers as having more sophisticated knowledge of the subject than did those who had male-voiced tutors, even though the two computers had given identical lessons. But the “male” and “female” computers got equal ratings when the topic was a gender-neutral one, like mass media. Another unfortunate gender stereotype suggests that forcefulness is desirable in men, but unseemly in women. And sure enough, students who heard a forceful male-voiced computer tutor rated it as being significantly more likable than those who heard a forceful female-voiced tutor, even though, again, both the male and the female voices had uttered the same words. Apparently, even when coming from a computer, an assertive personality in a female is more likely to come off as overbearing or bossy than the same personality in a male.

The researchers also investigated whether people will apply the social norms of politeness to computers. For example, when put in a position where they have to criticize someone face-to-face, people often hesitate or sugarcoat their true opinion. Suppose I ask my students, “Did you like my discussion of the stochastic nature of the foraging habits of wildebeests?” Judging from my experience, I’ll get a bunch of nods and a few audible murmurs. But no one will be honest enough to say, “Wildebeests? I didn’t hear a word of your boring lecture. But the monotonic drone of your voice did provide a soothing background as I surfed the web on my laptop.” Not even those who sat in the front row and clearly were surfing the web on their laptops would be that blunt. Instead, students save that kind of critique for their anonymous course-evaluation forms. But what if the one asking for the input was a talking computer? Would the students have the same inhibition against delivering a harsh judgment “face-to-face” to a machine? Nass and his colleagues asked half the students to enter their course evaluation on the same computer that had tutored them, and the other half to enter it on a different machine, a machine that had a different voice. Certainly the students would not consciously sugarcoat their words to avoid hurting the machine’s feelings—but as you probably guessed, they did indeed hesitate to criticize the computer to its “face.” That is, they rated the computer teacher as far more likable and competent when offering their judgment directly to that computer than when a different computer was gathering the input.4

Having social relations with a prerecorded voice is not a trait you’d want to mention in a job application. But, like the cowbirds, these students did treat it as if it were a member of their species, even though there was no actual person attached. Hard to believe? It was for the actual subjects. When, after some of the studies had been concluded, the researchers informed the students of the experiment’s true purpose, they all insisted with great confidence that they would never apply social norms to a computer.5 The research shows they were wrong. While our conscious minds are busy thinking about the meaning of the words people utter, our unconscious is busy judging the speaker by other criteria, and the human voice connects with a receiver deep within the human brain, whether that voice emanates from a human being or not.

PEOPLE SPEND A lot of time talking and thinking about how members of the opposite sex look but very little time paying attention to how they sound. To our unconscious minds, however, voice is very important. Our genus, Homo, has been evolving for a couple million years. Brain evolution happens over many thousands or millions of years, but we’ve lived in civilized society for less than 1 percent of that time. That means that though we may pack our heads full of twenty-first-century knowledge, the organ inside our skull is still a Stone Age brain. We think of ourselves as a civilized species, but our brains are designed to meet the challenges of an earlier era. Among birds and many other animals, voice seems to play a great role in meeting one of those demands—reproduction—and it seems to be similarly important in humans. As we’ll see, we pick up a great many sophisticated signals from the tone and quality of a person’s voice and from the cadence, but perhaps the most important way we relate to voice is directly analogous to the reaction of the cowbirds, for in humans, too, females are attracted to males by certain aspects of their “call.”

Women may disagree on whether they prefer dark-skinned men with beards, clean-shaven blonds, or men of any appearance sitting in the driver’s seat of a Ferrari—but when asked to rate men they can hear but not see, women miraculously tend to agree: men with deeper voices are rated as more attractive.6 Asked to guess the physical characteristics of the men whose voices they hear in such experiments, women tend to associate low voices with men who are tall, muscular, and hairy-chested—traits commonly considered sexy.

As for men, a group of scientists recently discovered that men unconsciously adjust the pitch of their voices higher or lower in accordance with their assessment of where they stand on the dominance hierarchy with respect to possible competitors. In that experiment, which involved a couple hundred men in their twenties, each man was told he’d be competing with another man for a lunch date with an attractive woman in a nearby room.7 The competitor, it was explained, was a man in a third room.

Each contestant communicated with the woman via a digital video feed, but when he communicated with the other man, he could only hear him, and not see him. In reality, both the competitor and the woman were confederates of the researchers, and they followed a fixed script. Each man was asked to discuss—with both the woman and his competitor—the reasons he might be respected or admired by other men. Then, after pouring his heart out about his prowess on the basketball court, his potential for winning the Nobel Prize, or his recipe for asparagus quiche, the session was ended, and he was asked to answer some questions assessing himself, his competitor, and the woman. The subjects were then dismissed. There would, alas, be no winners anointed.

The researchers analyzed a tape recording of the male contestants’ voices and scrutinized each man’s answers to the questionnaire. One issue the questionnaires probed was the contestant’s appraisal of his level of physical dominance as compared to that of his competitor. And the researchers found that when the participants believed they were physically dominant—that is, more powerful and aggressive—they lowered the pitch of their voices, and when they believed they were less dominant, they raised the pitch, all apparently without realizing what they were doing.

From the point of view of evolution, what’s interesting about all this is that a woman’s attraction to men with low voices is most pronounced when she is in the fertile phase of her ovulatory cycle.8 What’s more, not only do women’s voice preferences vary with the phases of their reproductive cycle, so do their own voicesin their pitch and smoothness—and research indicates that the greater a woman’s risk of conception, the sexier men find her voice.9 As a result, both women and men are especially attracted to each other’s voices during a woman’s fertile period. The obvious conclusion is that our voices act as subliminal advertisements for our sexuality. During a woman’s fertile phase, those ads flash brightly on both sides, tempting us to click the “Buy” button when we are most likely to obtain not only a mate but, for no extra (upfront) cost, also a child.

But there is still something to be explained. Why is it a deep voice, in particular, that attracts women? Why not a high, squeaky voice or one in mid-range? Was it just nature’s random choice, or does a deep voice correlate with male virility? We’ve seen that—in a woman’s eyes—a deep voice is considered indicative of men who are taller, hairier, and more muscular. The truth is, there is little or no correlation between a deep voice and any of those traits.10 However, studies show that what does correlate with a low-pitched voice is testosterone level. Men with lower voices tend to have higher levels of that male hormone.11

It is difficult to test whether nature’s plan works—whether men with more testosterone really produce more children—because modern birth control methods prevent us from judging a man’s reproductive potential by the number of children he fathers. Still, a Harvard anthropologist and some colleagues found a way. In 2007 they traveled to Africa to study the voices and family size of the Hadza people, a monogamous hunter-gatherer population of about one thousand in the savannah woodlands of Tanzania, where men are still men, tubers are plentiful, and no one uses birth control. In those savannahs, the baritones indeed beat the tenors. The researchers found that while the pitch of women’s voices was not a predictor of their reproductive success, men with lower-pitched voices on average fathered more children.12 A woman’s sexual attraction to a deep male voice does seem to have a neat evolutionary explanation. So if you’re a woman and you want a large family, follow your instincts and go for the Morgan Freeman type.

YOU’RE CERTAINLY MORE likely to satisfy an employee by saying, “I value you and will do everything I can to increase your salary” than by explaining, “I have to keep my budget down, and one of the easiest ways is to pay you as little as possible.” But you can also communicate either sentiment, though not the precise meaning, simply by the way you say it. That’s why some people can recount things like “He enjoyed chewing on plump grapes while speeding down a mountain in a monogrammed bobsled” and still give the impression of being profound, while others can say, “The large-scale geometry of the universe is determined by the density of the matter within it” and sound like they are whining. The pitch, timbre, volume, and cadence of your voice, the speed with which you speak, and even the way you modulate pitch and volume, are all hugely influential factors in how convincing you are, and how people judge your state of mind and your character.

Scientists have developed fascinating computer tools that allow them to determine the influence of voice alone, devoid of content. In one method they electronically scramble just enough syllables that the words cannot be deciphered. In another, they excise just the highest frequencies, which wreaks havoc with our ability to accurately identify consonants. Either way, the meaning is unintelligible while the feel of speech remains. Studies show that when people listen to such “content-free” speech, they still perceive the same impressions of the speaker and the same emotional content as do subjects who hear the unaltered speech.13 Why? Because as we are decoding the meaning of the utterances we call language, our minds are, in parallel, analyzing, judging, and being affected by qualities of voice that have nothing to do with words.

In one experiment scientists created recordings of a couple dozen speakers answering the same two questions, one political, one personal: “What is your opinion of college admissions designed to favor minority groups?” and “What would you do if you suddenly won or inherited a great sum of money?”14 Then they created four additional versions of each answer by electronically raising and lowering the speakers’ pitch by 20 percent, and by quickening and slowing their speech rate by 30 percent. The resulting speech still sounded natural, and its acoustic properties remained within the normal range. But would the alterations affect listeners’ perceptions?

The researchers recruited dozens of volunteers to judge the speech samples. The judges each heard and rated just one version of each speaker’s voice, randomly chosen from among the original and the altered recordings. Since the content of the speakers’ answers didn’t vary among the different versions but the vocal qualities did, differences in the listeners’ assessments would be due to the influence of those vocal qualities and not the content of the speech. The result: speakers with higher-pitched voices were judged to be less truthful, less emphatic, less potent, and more nervous than speakers with lower-pitched voices. Also, slower-talking speakers were judged to be less truthful, less persuasive, and more passive than people who spoke more quickly. “Fast-talking” may be a cliché description of a sleazy salesman, but chances are, a little speedup will make you sound smarter and more convincing. And if two speakers utter exactly the same words but one speaks a little faster and louder and with fewer pauses and greater variation in volume, that speaker will be judged to be more energetic, knowledgeable, and intelligent. Expressive speech, with modulation in pitch and volume and with a minimum of noticeable pauses, boosts credibility and enhances the impression of intelligence. Other studies show that, just as people signal the basic emotions through facial expressions, we also do it through voice. For example listeners instinctively detect that when we lower the usual pitch of our voice, we are sad and that when we raise it, we are angry or fearful.15

If voice makes such a huge impression, the key question becomes, To what extent can someone consciously alter their voice? Consider the case of Margaret Hilda Roberts, who in 1959 was elected as a Conservative member of British Parliament for North London. She had higher ambitions, but to those in her inner circle, her voice was an issue.16 “She had a schoolmarmish, very slightly bossy, slightly hectoring voice,” recalled Tim Bell, the mastermind of her party’s publicity campaigns. Her own publicity adviser, Gordon Reese, was more graphic. Her high notes, he said, were “dangerous to passing sparrows.” Proving that though her politics were fixed, her voice was pliable, Margaret Hilda Roberts took her confidants’ advice, lowered the pitch, and increased her social dominance. There is no way to measure exactly how much difference the change made, but she did pretty well for herself. After the Conservatives were defeated in 1974, Margaret Thatcher—she had married the wealthy businessman Denis Thatcher in 1951—became the party’s leader and, eventually, prime minister.

WHEN I WAS in high school, the few times I gathered the courage to approach a girl, the experience felt like I was administering a multiple-choice test and she kept answering, “None of the above.” I had more or less resigned myself to the fact that a boy who spent his free time reading books on non-Euclidean geometry was not likely to be voted “big man on campus.” Then one day when I was in the library looking for a math book, I took a wrong turn and stumbled upon a work whose title went something like How to Get a Date. I hadn’t realized people wrote instructional books on subjects like that. Questions raced through my mind: Didn’t the mere fact that I was interested in such a book mean it would never fulfill the promise of its title? Could a boy who’d rather talk about curved space-time than touchdown passes ever score himself? Was there really a bag of tricks?

The book emphasized that if a girl doesn’t know you very well—and that applied to every girl in my high school—you should not expect her to agree to a date, and you shouldn’t take the rejection personally. Instead, you should ignore the possibly enormous number of girls who turn you down and keep asking, because, even if the odds are low, the laws of mathematics say eventually your number will come up. Since mathematical laws are my kinds of laws, and I’ve always believed that persistence is a good life philosophy, I took the advice. I can’t say the results were statistically significant, but decades later, I was shocked to find that a group of French researchers essentially repeated the exercise the book had suggested. And they did it in a controlled scientific manner, achieving results that were statistically significant. Furthermore, to my surprise, they revealed a way I could have improved my chance of success.17

French culture is known for many great attributes, some of which probably have nothing to do with food, wine, and romance. But regarding the latter, the French are thought to especially excel, and in the experiment in question, they literally made a science of it. The scene was a particularly sunny June day in a pedestrian zone in the city of Vannes, a medium-sized town on the Atlantic coast of Brittany, in the west of France. Over the course of that day, three young and handsome French men randomly approached 240 young women they spotted walking alone and propositioned each and every one of them. To each, they would utter exactly the same words: “Hello. My name’s Antoine. I just want to say that I think you’re really pretty. I have to go to work this afternoon but I wonder if you would give me your phone number. I’ll phone you later and we can have a drink together someplace.” If the woman refused, they’d say, “Too bad. It’s not my day. Have a nice afternoon.” And then they’d look for another young woman to approach. If the woman handed over her number, they’d tell her the proposition was all in the name of science, at which time, according to the scientists, most of the women laughed. The key to the experiment was this: with half the women they propositioned, the young men added a light one-second touch to the woman’s forearm. The other half received no touch.

The researchers were interested in whether the men would be more successful when they touched the women than when they didn’t. How important is touch as a social cue? Over the course of the day, the young men collected three dozen phone numbers. When they didn’t touch the women, they had a success rate of 10 percent; when they touched them, their success rate was 20 percent. That light one-second touch doubled their popularity. Why were the touched women twice as likely to agree to a date? Were they thinking, This Antoine is a good toucher—it’d probably be fun to knock down a bottle of Bordeaux with him some night at Bar de l’Océan? Probably not. But on the unconscious level, touch seems to impart a subliminal sense of caring and connection.

Unlike non-Euclidean geometry, touch research has many obvious applications.18 For example, in an experiment involving eight servers and several hundred restaurant diners, the servers were trained to touch randomly selected customers briefly on the arm toward the end of the meal while asking if “everything was all right.” The servers received an average tip of about 14.5 percent from those they didn’t touch, but 17.5 percent from those they did. Another study found the same effect on tipping at a bar. And in another restaurant study, about 60 percent of diners took the server’s suggestion to order the special after being touched lightly on the forearm, compared with only about 40 percent of those who were not touched. Touching has been found to increase the fraction of single women in a nightclub who will accept an invitation to dance, the number of people agreeing to sign a petition, the chances that a college student will risk embarrassment by volunteering to go to the blackboard in a statistics class, the proportion of busy passersby in a mall willing to take ten minutes to fill out a survey form, the percentage of shoppers in a supermarket who purchase food they had sampled, and the odds that a bystander who had just provided someone with directions will help him pick up a bunch of computer disks he drops.

You might be skeptical of this. After all, some people recoil when a stranger touches them. And it is possible that some of the subjects in the studies I quoted did recoil but that their reactions were outweighed by the reactions of those who reacted positively. Remember, though, these were all very subtle touches, not gropes. In fact, in studies in which the touched person was later debriefed about the experience, typically less than one-third of the subjects were even aware that they had been touched.19

So are touchy-feely people more successful at getting things done? There is no data on whether bosses who dole out the occasional pat on the head run a smoother operation, but a 2010 study by a group of researchers in Berkeley found a case in which a habit of congratulatory slaps to the skull really is associated with successful group interactions.20 The Berkeley researchers studied the sport of basketball, which both requires extensive second-by-second teamwork and is known for its elaborate language of touching. They found that the number of “fist bumps, high fives, chest bumps, leaping shoulder bumps, chest punches, head slaps, head grabs, low fives, high tens, half hugs, and team huddles” correlated significantly with the degree of cooperation among teammates, such as passing to those who are less closely defended, helping others escape defensive pressure by setting what are called “screens,” and otherwise displaying a reliance on a teammate at the expense of one’s own individual performance. The teams that touched the most cooperated the most, and won the most.

Touch seems to be such an important tool for enhancing social cooperation and affiliation that we have evolved a special physical route along which those subliminal feelings of social connection travel from skin to brain. That is, scientists have discovered a particular kind of nerve fiber in people’s skin—especially in the face and arms—that appears to have developed specifically to transmit the pleasantness of social touch. Those nerve fibers transmit their signal too slowly to be of much use in helping you do the things you normally associate with the sense of touch: determining what is touching you and telling you, with some precision, where you were touched.21 “They won’t help you distinguish a pear from pumice or your cheek from your chin,” says the social neuroscientist pioneer Ralph Adolphs. “But they are connected directly to areas of the brain such as the insular cortex, which is associated with emotion.”22

To primatologists, the importance of touch is no surprise. Nonhuman primates touch each other extensively during grooming. And while grooming is ostensibly about hygiene, it would take only about ten minutes of grooming a day for an animal to stay clean. Instead, some species spend hours on it.23 Why? Remember those grooming cliques? In nonhuman primates, social grooming is important for maintaining social relationships.24 Touch is our most highly developed sense when we are born, and it remains a fundamental mode of communication throughout a baby’s first year and an important influence throughout a person’s life.25

AT A QUARTER to eight on the evening of September 26, 1960, Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy strode into the studio of the CBS affiliate WBBM in downtown Chicago.26 He appeared rested, bronzed, and fit. The journalist Howard K. Smith would later compare Kennedy to an “athlete come to receive his wreath of laurel.” Ted Rogers, the TV consultant to Kennedy’s Republican opponent, Richard Nixon, remarked, “When he came into the studio I thought he was Cochise, he was so tan.”

Nixon, on the other hand, looked haggard and pale. He had arrived fifteen minutes before Kennedy’s grand entrance. The two candidates were in Chicago for the first presidential debate in U.S. history. But Nixon had recently been hospitalized for a knee infection, which still plagued him. Then, ignoring advice to continue resting, he’d resumed a grueling cross-country campaign schedule and had lost considerable weight. As he climbed out of his Oldsmobile, he suffered from a 102 degree fever, yet he insisted he was well enough to go through with the debate. When judged by the candidates’ words, Nixon was indeed destined to hold his own that night. But the debate would proceed on two levels, the verbal and the nonverbal.

The issues of the day included the conflict with communism, agriculture and labor problems, and the candidates’ experience. Since elections are high-stakes affairs and debates are about important philosophical and practical issues, the candidates’ words are all that should matter, right? Would you be swayed to vote against a candidate because a knee infection had made him look tired? Like voice and touch, posture, facial appearance, and expression exert a powerful influence on how we judge people. But would we elect a president based on demeanor?

CBS’s debate producer, Don Hewitt, took one look at Nixon’s gaunt face and immediately heard alarm bells. He offered both candidates the services of a makeup artist, but after Kennedy declined, so did Nixon. Then, while an aide rubbed an over-the-counter cosmetic called Lazy Shave over Nixon’s famously heavy five o’clock shadow, out of their view Kennedy’s people proceeded to give Kennedy a full cosmetic touch-up. Hewitt pressed Rogers, Nixon’s TV consultant, about his candidate’s appearance, but Rogers said he was satisfied. Hewitt then elevated his concern to his boss at CBS. He, too, approached Rogers but received the same response.

Some seventy million people watched the debate. When it was over, one prominent Republican in Texas was heard to say, “That son of a bitch just cost us the election.” That prominent Republican was in a good position to know. He was Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., Richard Nixon’s running mate. When the election was held, some six weeks later, Nixon and Lodge lost the popular vote by a hair, just 113,000 out of the 67,000,000 votes cast. That’s less than 1 vote in 500, so even if the debate had convinced just a small percentage of viewers that Nixon wasn’t up to the job, it would have been enough to swing the election.

What’s really interesting here is that, while viewers like Lodge were thinking that Nixon did horribly, a slew of other prominent Republicans had a completely different experience. For example, Earl Mazo, the national political correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune—and a Nixon supporter—attended a kind of debate party with eleven governors and members of their staffs, all in town for the Southern Governors Conference in Hot Springs, Arkansas.27 They thought Nixon did splendidly. Why was their experience so different from Lodge’s? They had listened to the debate over the radio, because the television broadcast was delayed by one hour in Arkansas.

Of the radio broadcast, Mazo said, “[Nixon’s] deep, resonant voice conveyed more conviction, command, and determination than Kennedy’s higher-pitched voice and his Boston-Harvard accent.” But when the television feed came, Mazo and the governors switched to it and watched the first hour again. Mazo then changed his mind about the winner, saying, “On television, Kennedy looked sharper, more in control, more firm.” A Philadelphia commercial research firm, Sindlinger & Co., later confirmed that analysis. According to an article in the trade journal Broadcasting, their research showed that among radio listeners, Nixon won by more than a two-to-one margin, but among the far greater number of television viewers, Kennedy beat him.

The Sindlinger study was never published in a scientific journal, and little niceties like sample size—and the methodology for accounting for demographic differences between radio and TV users—were not revealed. That’s how the issue stood for some forty years. Then, in 2003, a researcher enlisted 171 summer school students at the University of Minnesota to assess the debate, half after watching a video of it, half after listening to the audio only.28 As scientific subjects, these students had an advantage over any group that might have been assembled at the time of the actual debate: they had no vested interest in either candidate and little or no knowledge of the issues. To the voters in 1960, the name Nikita Khrushchev carried great emotional significance. To these students, he sounded like just another hockey player. But their impression of the debate was no different from that of the voters four decades earlier: those students who watched the debate were significantly more likely to think Kennedy won than those who only listened to it.

IT’S LIKELY THAT, like the voters in the 1960 U.S. presidential election, we have all at some time chosen one individual over another based on looks. We vote for political candidates, but we also select from among candidates for spouse, friend, auto mechanic, attorney, doctor, dentist, vendor, employee, boss. How strong an influence does a person’s appearance have on us? I don’t mean beauty—I mean something more subtle, a look of intelligence, or sophistication, or competence. Voting is a good stand-in for probing the effect of appearance in many realms because there is not only plenty of data available but plenty of money to study it.

In one pair of experiments, a group of researchers in California created campaign flyers for several fictional congressional elections.29 Each supposedly pitted a Republican against a Democrat. In reality, the “candidates” were models hired by the researchers to pose for the black-and-white photographs that would appear in the flyers. Half the models looked able and competent. The other half did not look very able. The researchers didn’t rely on their own judgment to determine that: they conducted a preliminary rating session in which volunteers rated each model’s visual appeal. Then, when the researchers made up the campaign flyers, in each case they pitted one of the more able-looking individuals against one of the less able-looking ones to see if the candidate with the better demeanor would get more votes.

In addition to each candidate’s (fake) name and picture, the flyers included substantive information such as party affiliation, education, occupation, political experience, and a three-line position statement on each of three campaign issues. To eliminate the effects of party preference, half the voters saw flyers in which the more able-looking candidate was a Republican, and half saw flyers in which he was a Democrat. In principle, it should have been only the substantive information that would be relevant to a voter’s choice.

The scientists recruited about two hundred volunteers to play the role of voters. The researchers told the volunteers that the campaign flyers were based on real information concerning real candidates. They also misled the volunteers about the purpose of the experiment, saying that they sought to examine how people vote when they have equal information—such as that on the flyers—on all of the candidates. The volunteers’ job, the scientists explained to them, was merely to look over the flyers and vote for the candidate of their choice in each of the elections presented. The “face effect” proved to be large: the candidate with the better demeanor, on average, won 59 percent of the vote. That’s a landslide in modern politics. In fact the only American president since the Great Depression to have won by that big a margin was Lyndon Johnson, when he beat Goldwater with 61 percent of the vote in 1964. And that was an election in which Goldwater was widely portrayed as a man itching to start a nuclear war.

In the second study, the researchers’ methodology was similar, except this time the pool of people whose photos were used to portray the candidates was chosen differently. In the first study, the candidates were all men who’d been judged by a voting committee as looking either more or less competent. In this study, the candidates were all women whose appearance had been assessed by a committee as being neutral. The scientists then employed a Hollywood-style makeup specialist and a photographer to create two photographic versions of each candidate: one in which she appeared more competent, and another in which she appeared less competent. In this mock election, a competent version of one woman was always pitted against an incompetent version of another. The result: on average, looking more like a leader equated to a vote swing of 15 percent at the polls. To get an idea of the magnitude of that effect, consider that in one recent California congressional election, a swing of that size would have changed the outcome in fifteen of the fifty-three districts.

I found these studies astounding and alarming. They imply that before anyone even discusses the issues, the race may be over, since looks alone can give a candidate a huge head start. With all the important issues of the day, it’s hard to accept that a person’s face would really sway our vote. One obvious criticism of this research is that these were mock elections. The studies might show that a competent appearance can give a candidate a boost, but they don’t address the issue of how “soft” that preference may be. Certainly one would expect that voters with strong ideological preferences would not be easily swayed by appearance. Swing voters ought to be more easily affected but is the phenomenon strong enough to affect elections in the real world?

In 2005, researchers at Princeton gathered black-and-white head shots of all the winners and runners-up in ninety-five races for the U.S. Senate and six hundred races for the House of Representatives from 2000, 2002, and 2004.30 Then they assembled a group of volunteers to evaluate the candidates’ competence based on just a quick look at the photographs, discarding the data on any of the faces a volunteer recognized. The results were astonishing: the candidate the volunteers perceived as more competent had won in 72 percent of the Senate races and 67 percent of the House races, even higher success rates than in the California laboratory experiment. Then, in 2006, the scientists performed an experiment with even more astonishing—and, when you think about it, depressing—results. They conducted the face evaluations before the elections in question and predicted the winners based solely on the candidates’ appearance. They were strikingly accurate: the candidate voted as more competent-looking went on to win in 69 percent of the gubernatorial races and 72 percent of the Senate races.

I’ve gone into detail regarding these political studies not just because they are important in themselves but because, as I said earlier, they shed light on our broader social interactions. In high school, our vote for class president might be based on looks. It would be nice to think that we outgrow those primitive ways, but it’s not easy to graduate from our unconscious influences.

In his autobiography, Charles Darwin reported that he was almost denied the chance to make his historic voyage on the Beagle on account of his looks, in particular, because of his nose, which was large and somewhat bulbous.31 Darwin himself later used his nose, facetiously, as an argument against intelligent design, writing, “Will you honestly tell me … whether you believe that the shape of my nose was ordained and ’guided by an intelligent cause’?”32 The Beagle’s captain wanted to keep Darwin off the ship because he had a personal belief that you could judge character by the shape of the nose, and a man with Darwin’s, he felt, could not possibly “possess sufficient energy and determination for the voyage.” In the end, of course, Darwin got the job. Of the captain, Darwin later wrote, “I think he was afterwards well-satisfied that my nose had spoken falsely.”33

TOWARD THE END of The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy and company approach the great Wizard, offering him the broomstick of the Wicked Witch of the West. They can see only fire, smoke, and a floating image of the Wizard’s face as he responds in booming, authoritative tones that have Dorothy and her cohorts trembling with fear. Then Dorothy’s dog, Toto, tugs aside a curtain, revealing that the ominous Wizard is just an ordinary-looking man speaking into a microphone and pulling levers and twisting dials to orchestrate the fireworks. He yanks the curtain closed and admonishes, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain,” but the jig is up, and Dorothy discovers that the Wizard is just a genial old man.

There is a man or woman behind the curtain of everybody’s persona. Through our social relationships we get to know a small number of beings with the level of intimacy that allows us to peel back the curtain—our friends, close neighbors, family members, and perhaps the family dog (though certainly not the cat). But we don’t get to pull the curtain very far back on most of the people we meet, and it is usually drawn fully closed when we encounter someone for the first time. As a result, certain superficial qualities, such as voice, face and expression, posture, and the other nonverbal characteristics I’ve been talking about, mold many of the judgments we make about people—the nice or nasty people we work with, our neighbors, our doctors, our kids’ teachers, the politicians we vote for or against or simply try to ignore. Every day we meet people and form judgments like I trust that babysitter, This lawyer knows what she is doing, or That guy seems like the type who would gently stroke my back while reciting Shakespeare sonnets by candlelight. If you are a job applicant, the quality of your handshake can affect the outcome of your employment interview. If you are a salesperson, your degree of eye contact can influence your rating of customer satisfaction. If you are a doctor, the tone of your voice can have an impact on not only your patients’ assessment of their visit but their propensity to sue if something goes wrong. We humans are superior to cowbirds in our conscious understanding. But we also have a deep inner cowbird mind that reacts to nonverbal cues, uncensored by those logical judgments of consciousness. The expression “to be a real human being” means to act with compassion. Other languages have similar expressions, such as the German “ein Mensch sein.” A human being, by nature, cannot help but pick up on the emotions and intentions of others. That ability is built into our brains, and there is no off switch.