Many of us worry about corruption amongst political elites, but could it be possible to actually recognize it in their faces?
In a pretty creative study, a team of psychologists from the California Institute of Technology sought to explore whether people could detect evidence of corruption by government officials by providing them with pictures of their faces. This study helps shed light both on efforts to effectively read other people but also on efforts by citizens to better evaluate our elected representatives.
While this may seem initially like a pretty far-fetched idea, there is a long history of research showing that people tend to make competent decisions about people’s trustworthiness from images of their faces. This has even been applied to potential leaders, where prosocial outcomes lead to positive evaluations.
However, this study makes an important break in shifting from just evaluations of a person’s charisma and perceived competence to actually determining if they have been practicing deception. Still, there is some prima facie credibility in that guilty expressions are generally identifiable.
To answer their question, the study authors undertook a series of experimental designs, showing images of politicians and asking participants to identify salient traits, such as corruptibility, dishonesty, and selfishness but also including more prosocial tendencies like competence and ambition.
In the first of these studies, participants were exposed to a series of 72 photos of actual elected officials in the United States. Of those, half had been convicted of some form of corruption, such as violations of campaign finance laws.
Before exposing participants to these photos, they were prompted with an instruction that they would have to designate the official’s level (1-5) of a given trait as quickly as possible, and they only had about four seconds to do so. This sought to ensure that people were judging based on spontaneous and initial reactions of emotional recognition.
Subsequent studies functioned similarly in an effort to strengthen the generalizability of any findings. This included varying the level of government that a given official held or using variants of the initial traits.
Overall, this series of experiments found broad support for the ability of participants to identify political corruption in faces of elected officials. This held up across variants, suggesting that it would apply more broadly outside of a limited experimental setting.
While many questions about generalizability and the precise causal mechanisms remain, this ambitious study does give us further evidence that our ability to read faces and detect deception has great potential even in photographs.
In the meantime, check out some of Dr. Matsumoto’s work on politics and deception!