Candidates, Fix Your Faces!

Copyright © by Len Holman, 5/2/12


  If a candidate for elected office wants to win an election, he or she should heed the old maxim, “the mind is a relevance-making machine.”  A political junkie of my acquaintance said—when Robert Bork was being ferociously grilled by the Senate Judiciary Committee for a possible slot on the Supreme Court—“he looks like the Devil.”  This from an atheist.  In her mind, Bork’s countenance inspired disgust, mistrust and revulsion.  This is a psychological phenomenon called Pareidolia (parr-i-DOH-lee-uh), and it’s the same phenomenon which allows humans to see ships in clouds and the face of Jesus burned into a tortilla; it’s the same phenomenon which creates the Man in the Moon and that really creepy, but realistic-looking, face on Mars, Indian faces on rock formations, and tree fungus that looks like a big ugly monkey holding on for dear life.  This is supposed to be some evolutionary survival mechanism, so that our progenitors could instantly recognize faces—friends from foes—and act accordingly: smile and say, “hi” or run like hell and live to fight another day. 

  In light of this well-studied activity, one wonders how much the faces of candidates consciously or subconsciously impact a voter’s decision.  Recently, Newt Gingrich decided he’d had enough, read the writing on the wall, seen the light, and generally gave up.  The reasons given are varied:  money, lack of organization, etc.  But maybe the underlying reason is his face. Newt’s face is piggy-eyed, jowly, and pale, and his smile is one that—after shaking hands with him—might make you check your fingers.  He has an untrustworthy face.  And that voice. Pareidolia has an audio component, as Beatles’ fans remember, when “experts” discovered a “Paul is dead” message on their recording of “Come Together.”   Voices are important for indicating tone, and predicting behavior (which is why so many scams via email succeed: no way to check voice intonation, sincerity, authenticity, truth).  Darwin would roll over in his grave. 

  WHAT a candidate is saying is important—if the candidate ever says anything important, but only to the voters he or she already has in hand.  For independents and the ones who are still undecided, this phenomenon is very important.  Voters are, contrary to some opinions, people, and people are still in the throes of the sudden shock of coming off branches and walking through dangerous territory.  We need to see and hear danger and potential problems.  We need to be reassured.  The relevance-making machine goes into overdrive when the patterns of reality are ambiguous or hidden from clarification.  And there is no more ambiguous and unclear activity than a Presidential campaign. 

  It’s because of this that the pareidolia effect becomes very important.  It’s because of this and the huge number of independent and undecided voters up for grabs that it would be interesting and instructive to analyze the two candidates for President.  Mitt Romney is, on the surface, unremarkable—and that’s his problem.  He has regular features, a deep and smooth voice, well-coiffed hair, good height, and nice suits—when he’s not pretending to be a man of the people, wearing a tieless white shirt and blue jeans.  But when it is said that he doesn’t excite voters, that means he seems to be part of the landscape, the background, that he blends in and—evolutionarily speaking—doesn’t raise himself in our consciousness much.  He is not a threat or remarkable enough to investigate, as would a log possibly filled with edible grubs would be.  He is an evolutionary cipher. 

  The President is said to be likable and the polls seem to back up that assessment.  In other words, the President’s irregular features, his prominent ears, large mouth, dark skin, slenderness to the point of being Ichabod Crane-like, his wide and engaging smile, his stentorian, but not threatening, voice—all tell us he is not camouflaged, not blended into the background (and thus a potential threat) but is safe and trustable, that he is not trying to hide anything (I’m not saying he ISN’T trying to hide anything; I’m saying he doesn’t SEEM to be).  The criticism that he seems aloof and distant seems to translate as being calm and in control of himself and various tough situations.  If Romney gets too carried away, if he starts getting emoting advice from Rush Limbaugh, say, then he’s in trouble with swing voters, who have Darwinian worries of aggression and spitting into microphones.  Obama is the palimpsest we inscribe upon and his demeanor seems calculated to address this problem.  Even as Tea Party folk and hard-line conservatives see him coming to each of their houses to take their shotguns and Glocks, his coolness is designed to allay the fears of the rest of us—fear and loathing, in human survival terms, being very contagious and designed to protect the tribe. 

  This instinct will, I think, stand the President in good stead as the campaign progresses toward its bloody climax.  He will adjust his face to stay friendly-seeming; he will remain smiling, telling self-deprecating jokes and gently—ever so gently—poking fun at his opponent.  This ribbing is non-threatening and in some cultures considered a mark of verbal and mental prowess (see: Langston Hughes and his descriptions of African-Americans playing “the dozens”). Latino culture is filled with this verbal sparring, as a mark of inclusion and just plain fun.  These are two importing voting blocs the President must win over.  And what about women? If any gender has had a need, over the millennia, to be able to recognize danger and safety and goodness and strength, it is women.  Both Obama and Romney better be ready to SEEM to be a woman’s friend—not just in content (the “war on women” and all that), but in body language, hand gestures, voice intonation, facial expressions, and eye contact, this last being benign, not aggressive.  Who can do this?  Who will know to do it?  November is almost here.  Who will be that magnificent floating cloud-galleon in the sky and who the ugly fungus in the shape of a monster?


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