People Can Tell an Autocrat Just by Taking a Glance at Them

The study evaluating the physical features of 160 relatively unknown political leaders came up with interesting insights.
Loukia Papadopoulos

Oftentimes, autocrats are known for their ruthlessness in their ruling whereas democratically elected politicians tend to be associated with positive change. Now, a new study is finding that these differences may even show up in the individuals' features.

The study published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science found that people could classify a photo of a politician as either an autocrat or a democratically-elected leader with an accuracy of almost 70%. The elected leaders were also deemed to be more attractive, likable, and trustworthy than the dictators.

To complete this study, the researchers used The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index and the Freedom House’s Freedom in the World report to categorize countries as either “democratic” or “authoritarian."

They compiled a list of 160 male heads of these states (80 democratic leaders and 80 dictators) and omitted any very famous figures such as Donald Trump, Justin Trudeau, or Vladimir Putin. Additionally, no female figures were picked so as not to invite any potential gender biases.

They then proceeded to take pictures from these leaders crop them and turn them into greyscale. They showed these images to 90 participants who categorized the leaders depicted in the photos as either autocrats or elected leaders with just over 69% accuracy.

The researchers decided to then evaluate what traits revealed the leaders' status. So they conducted another trial this time with 229 participants. They asked them to rank from a scale of 1 to 8 the following qualities: affect (happy or sad), attractiveness, competence, dominance, maturity, likability, and trustworthiness.

The participants found the democratically-elected leaders to be more attractive, more competent, happier, and warmer. The researchers suggest that these traits make sense in democracies, “where popularity plays a critical role in whether someone emerges as a leader.” They also stated that “looking colder and less attractive might similarly facilitate the command of authority on which dictators rely to control the citizens of their nations.”

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