People can distinguish dictators from democratic leaders based on their facial appearance alone

Former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.(Image by WikiImages from Pixabay)

New research provides evidence that democratically elected leaders tend to have more attractive and warmer faces than authoritarian leaders. The findings, which appear in Social Psychological and Personality Science, suggest that a leader’s facial appearance often reflects the political system in which she or he operates.

People quickly form judgments based on the appearance of a person’s face, including judgments about their ability to lead. However, most research demonstrating a relationship between leaders’ facial appearance and their political success has examined democratic political systems. Study author Miranda Giacomin and her team sought to expand on this research by comparing leaders from democratic nations to those from authoritarian regimes.

“I’m interested in the ideas people have about what leaders should look like, how these ideas may change across contexts, and whether these ideas match with how leaders actually look,” explained Giacomin, an assistant professor at MacEwan University.

In the study, 90 U.S. adults were shown facial photographs of 80 democratic leaders and 80 dictators in random order. The participants were asked to guess whether the person in the photo was democratically elected or a dictator. If a participant indicated that they were familiar with the leader in question, their response was excluded from the analysis. The researchers found that participants were able to correctly distinguish democratic leaders and dictators about 69% of the time.

To better understand the basis for these categorizations, the researchers conducted a second study with another 229 participants. The participants again viewed facial photographs of the 160 leaders, but this time they rated each leader’s affect, attractiveness, competence, dominance, facial maturity, likability, and trustworthiness. The researchers found that leaders of democratic nations tended to look more attractive, likable, and trustworthy than leaders of authoritarian regimes.

“Context often plays a role in terms of the type of leader that is preferred. People may more readily follow leaders who fit their impressions of who looks like a suitable leader in that particular context,” Giacomin told PsyPost.

“Democracies value justice, openness, and transparency; as such, voters prefer politicians whose faces convey warmth through trustworthiness and likability. Dictatorships, however, operate through subordination of the population, deception, and tyranny. Dictators who appear harsh and less warm match this style of governance better and might therefore successfully elicit more fear and intimidation in the population,” the researchers explained.

But, as with any study, the new research includes some caveats.

“In these studies, we labelled a leader as either a dictator or as being democratically elected,” Giacomin said. “In the real world, however, measures of freedom and democracy tend to be more fluid, which isn’t captured using these binary classifications. There are also a host of additional factors that we didn’t take into account in these studies that could impact perceptions, such as leader race.”

The study, “Dictators Differ From Democratically Elected Leaders in Facial Warmth“, was published by Miranda Giacomin, Alexander Mulligan, and Nicholas O. Rule.

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