Billionaire Donald Trump, known for offensive comments and an aggressive speaking style, is undeniably the most popular Republican candidate for president as of September 2015 — though many would agree he is a far cry from the presidential persona most would expect. How is this possible?
Do we really choose our political leaders based on their standing on pressing issues and voting track records, or are elections just a big popularity contest based on appearance, likability and other traits that seem unrelated to the qualities necessary to lead?
In fact, various studies have shown that voters rely heavily on a variety of skin-deep factors to make their political decisions including appearance, facial expressions and even tone of voice.
In 2009 psychologists John Antonakis and Olaf Dalgas conducted a study published in the journal Science that found, based on appearances, Swiss children in the range of 5 to 13-years-old were able to predict the likely winner of a French election just as well as voting French adults could, according to a report by Scientific American.
If the voting patterns of adults being comparable to those of children wasn’t bad enough, a study by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2011 found that some voters lean towards more attractive candidates.
"It's not that this effect influences all voters exactly the same way," says Chappell Lawson, an associate professor of political science at MIT and a co-author of the study. "Voters who watch a lot of television but don't really know much about the candidates, besides how they look, are particularly susceptible."
"The size of the effect is roughly equivalent to the influence of incumbency," he said.
Most recently, a new study by researchers at the University of Miami and Duke University suggests that voters also lean towards candidates with deeper voices, a trait they associate with strength and competence.
"Modern-day political leadership is more about competing ideologies than brute force, but at some earlier time in human history it probably paid off to have a literally strong leader," said study co-author Casey Klofstad, an associate professor of political science at the University of Miami.
The study is scheduled to appear online in the journal PLOS ONE as part of a field of research focused on unconscious biases that influence voters’ decisions.
"We think of ourselves as rational beings, but our research shows that we also make thin impressionistic judgments based on very subtle signals that we may or may not be aware of," Klofstad said.
The results are consistent with a previous study by Klofstad and colleagues which also found that candidates with deeper voices get more votes. The researchers found that a deep voice conveys greater physical strength, competence, and integrity in male and female candidates, but whether or not that is actually true remains to be determined, they said.
Conflating baritones with brawn has some merit, Klofstad said. Men and women with lower-pitched voices generally have higher testosterone, and are physically stronger and more aggressive.
But the question of why voters in modern day political contests base their preferences for candidates on relatively primitive attributes remains a question that deserves more attention.
Using data from a U.S. election, the researchers plan to study whether or not the affinity for deep voices among voters actually produces better leaders.
Klofstad and colleagues calculated the mean voice pitch of the candidates from the 2012 U.S. House of Representatives elections and found that candidates with lower-pitched voices were more likely to win. Now, they plan to see if their voice pitch data correlates with objective measures of leadership ability, such as years in office or number of bills passed, according to the University.
Biases aren't always bad, Klofstad said. It may be there are good reasons to go with our gut.
"But if it turns out that people with lower voices are actually poorer leaders, then it's bad that voters are cuing into this signal if it's not actually a reliable indicator of leadership ability," he said. "Becoming more aware of the biases influencing our behavior at the polls may help us control them or counteract them if they're indeed leading us to make poor choices."