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Absurd on Its Face

Oct 15, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 05 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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Anyone who doubts that the social psychologists of our great nation are underemployed will want to wait for the new issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, which will soon publish a paper called “Appearance-based Politics.” Out at UCLA, a few graduate students with nothing better to do collected photographs of all 435 members of the House of Representatives. Then they ran the photos through a software program called FaceGen Modeler using the Photo Fit Tool, which is not to be confused with the Gender Morph Tool, though they used the Gender Morph Tool too. 

Republican or Democrat?

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Why would they do such a thing? Because they wanted to judge the “sex typicality” of each politician’s “facial cues.” Couldn’t they have just gone to the beach?

As it happens, the scholars discovered that Republican female House members were more likely than their Democratic counterparts to have a “face that reflects gender norms,” or, to put it another way, to have “stereotypically feminine facial features,” or, to put it still another way, to be better looking. The difference from one side of the aisle to the other was so pronounced that a group of undergraduates were able to correctly identify many politicians as Republicans or Democrats on the basis of looks alone.

The researchers festoon their paper with an intimidating array of the hiero-glyphs of modern social science: regressions and slopes and equations modeling hierarchical data into mediated pathways—enough scribbles to fill the walls of the grandest pharaoh’s tomb. These won’t satisfy the more cynical laymen, who might wonder why we need social psychologists to tell us the difference between the party of John Thune and Kelly Ayotte and that of Harry Reid and Barbara Mikulski.

More interesting are the many buried assumptions in the paper and its methodologies. The researchers reached the conclusion that Republicans are prettier than Democrats because Democrats aim “to diminish gender disparities (e.g. women’s rights, abortion rights)” while Republican politicians “bolster traditional sex roles” with policies like “military spending [and] national defense.” Among Republicans, “feminine women are highly regarded,” and feminine women are, according to the researchers, “stereotypically feminine.” Thank God for social science.

We wish the paper’s premises and explanations were more coherent than this, but they aren’t. Besides, isn’t there something vaguely sexist in the conclusion that women who like a big Pentagon budget are more likely to be, in the outmoded phrase of David Letterman, babelicious? Or that women who advocate positions that the researchers find congenial​—​“women’s rights”​—​are more likely to be, as it were, Rosa DeLauro? Perhaps the next step in UCLA’s research can be a study called “The Dumb Blonde Hypothesis: A Reappraisal.” The researchers will find all the subjects they need the next time they head to the beach.

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