A politician's face is his (and sometimes her) fortune

Updated Monday, 11th March 2013
The shape of your face may be key to political success. Dick Skellington reports.

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A baby David Cameron might be destined to lead? Abraham Lincoln once said 'if I were two-faced, would I be wearing this one?'.  It appears he knew something for it now seems as if the faces of politicians can indeed make a leader. 

Research at the University of St Andrews has revealed that long faces, especially in male politicians, are a key to political success and electoral survival. It claims we tend to trust people with longer faces, particularly in troubled times, and that this attribute can be traced to our ancestors' tendency to trust dominant males for leadership. 

I wonder if this thought will cross the mind of 115 Catholic Cardinals when they sit in the Vatican conclave soon to elect a new Pope, now the last of them has arrived from Vietnam to choose a successor to Benedict XVI. Will he be tall and of thin visage?

In US politics the taller Presidential candidate tends to win elections, as Lincoln did. The latest research suggests that it is not just height that is important, but length of visage.

Volunteers were asked to alter photos of the faces of men and women to resemble those they would choose to lead their country in time of peace, and of war. When choosing peacetime leaders they increased the length of face by 6 per cent in men's faces, but stayed the same for women. However, for wartime leaders the face length was increased significantly, by 34.9 per cent in women, and by 45.8 per cent in men. 

Of course there are exceptions to the rule. The former French President Nicolas Sarkozy was very short and had a long face, while Tony Blair was quite tall at six feet but had a small face, making him look rather diminutive. Even in families you can find evidence to support both sides of the argument. Witness the facial differences and heights of Presidents George Bush senior and George Walker Bush.  

If leadership choices are influenced by facial cues and physiognomy that have no relevance to political experience, then it might explain why Prime Minister David Cameron has higher ratings than Labour's Ed Miliband. But it would not explain the popularity of round-faced Alex Salmond north of the border. 

Faces of leaders have long captivated the imagination. The 19th century American sociologist Charles Cooley once observed: 'a strange and somewhat impassive physiognomy is often, perhaps, an advantage to an orator, or leader of any sort, because it helps to fix the eye and fascinate the mind'.  

Other research tends to support the St Andrews study. In men success and leadership are equated to a rectangular face with angular features, focused eyes, a thin straight mouth and healthy skin. Women thought to be good leaders have an oval face with wide, alert eyes, well-defined features and arched eyebrows. 

But while those at St Andrews would argue that longer faces are more likely to make a male leader, other researchers, for example those in Helsinki, have adopted a different approach. They contend that 'baby facedness' does not result in electoral success. So, for those of you out there who have an aversion to a second term of David Cameron, you may now have the evidence to explain why. 

This blog post is part of Society Matters. The blog seeks to inform, stimulate and challenge our understanding of this changing world and of our humbling role within it. Find out more about the blog and the team.
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Please note: The opinions expressed in Society Matters posts are those of the individual authors, and do not represent the views of The Open University.




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