It’s not just what’s said. It’s also who says it.

Here’s a quick quiz. Four of the American politicians pictured below are Democrats and four are Republicans. Can you guess which are which?


The answers are below but chances are you got most of them right: A 2012 study by psychology researchers at UCLA found that Republican congresswomen appear more “feminine” (based on characteristics like jaw shape, location of eyebrows, placement of cheek bones, eye shape and the contour of the forehead) than their Democrat counterparts. Republican congress women appeared even more feminine if they had more conservative voting records.

One of the study’s authors, Kerri Johnson explains “We suspect that conservative constituents demand that their politicians be not just competent but also gender-typical, especially among women”. In other words, Republican supporters are more likely to support feminine women because they look ‘like women are supposed to’.

The correlation wasn’t seen in men and in fact male Republicans tended to have less masculine faces than male Democrats. The authors speculate that this is because politics is already seen as masculine, so a less masculine appearance might not stand in the way for Republicans. (As an interesting aside, another study has found that people are more likely to vote for men if they have feminine features, during peace time and if they have masculine features, during war time.)

Anyway here are the answers:

Republicans: 1 Martha Roby (Alabama); 3 Judy Biggert (Illinois); 4 Jo Ann Emerson (Missouri); 5 Lynn Jenkins (Kansas)
Democrats: 2 Chellie Pingree (Maine); 6 Grace Napolitano (California); 7 Rosa DeLauro (Connecticut); 8 Lois Capps (California)
Aristotle and Ethos

All of this is in line with Aristole’s theories of persuasion in speeches as set out in The Art of Rhetoric . In it, he outlines three rhetorical techniques that make a speaker appeal to their audience: ethos, pathos and logos:

  • Ethos: “Persuasion is achieved by the speaker’s personal character when the speech is so spoken as to make us think him credible”.
  • Pathos: “Secondly, persuasion may come through the hearers, when the speech stirs their emotions.”
  • Logos: “Thirdly, persuasion is effected through the speech itself when we have proved a truth or an apparent truth by means of the persuasive arguments suitable to the case in question.”

The character of the speaker might often be conveyed by things they say (setting out their credentials for example) or their context (where and when they are speaking) but it is also communicated through the body of the speaker for example what they look like, what they wear, how they move. “For Aristotle, there are two determinants of the character of the speaker; he favours middle-aged men and those who have an elite status e.g. positive ancestry, wealth and power.” (Amarjit Lahel)

I often try to tell myself that the first choreographic decision is who to cast. It’s not just enough to say it’s who is available (the person on your course, the people available in your city) because the age, the gender, the ethnicity, the body type all communicate something before the dancer has made their first move. And similarly the performance of a speech rests on who is actually giving it.

You’ve got the look

We’ve already seen that what’s considered a persuasive character, depends on the view point of the audience. In the same vein, a 2011 Danish study found that left wing candidates were more likely to receive votes if they had a friendly and attractive appearance, while right candidates would do better if they appear dominant and strong.

But there are some characteristics that seem to be universal. For example a Massachusetts Institute of Technology study found that candidates’ physical appearance strongly influences voters, and that people around the world seem to agree about what constitutes a “good-looking” leader.

And as Scientific American reported in 2009 a study found “that Swiss children as young as five years can predict which candidates are more likely to win French parliamentary elections…

…The field of cognitive psychology teaches us that, when faced with a data deluge, the human mind tends to simplify the decision-making process by relying on quick and easy strategies, or what many scientists refer to as “heuristics.” Given the complexity of voting—candidates hold many, subtle positions, and voters are bombarded with information—it should come as no surprise that voters take mental shortcuts to arrive at their final decisions. Although some of these strategies, such as voting along party lines, may be reasonable, others are harder to justify, and thus call into question the very notion of the rational voter.”

Much of this article has looked at characteristics that can be seen in still photographs but movement is unsurprisingly a major part of ethos. Don Khoury, a nonverbal communication consultant in Boston, explains that, in a debate setting, most people judge politicians based on how they make them feel rather than on their talking points…

…the greater indicator of success is the least amount of negative body language, body language that conveys arrogance, insincerity, or low confidence. Covering one’s crotch, swaying, or other types of defensive body language implies vulnerability. This includes hyper blinking, fake smiles. Rapid jerking motions, hand-wringing.” Making voters uncomfortable — or appearing detached — can ruin a politician’s image, costing them valuable votes on Election Day.

The long and short of it

Height is also a big part of ethos. Voters see tall politicians as better suited for leadership, according to a 2011 survey of how people visualise their leaders. And ex-president of France Nicholas Sarkozy was widely known (and mocked) for using built up shoes, giving speeches on platforms, and standing next to short people to appear taller:

Carla Bruni and Nicolas Sarkozy

For fun, here’s how political humorist Jon Stewart (5 feet 7 inches) addressed the height issue in a debate with right wing TV host Bill O’Reilly (6 feet 4 inches) around the recent US presidential elections:

Less funny is the story of Australian politician Hajnal Ban who had a leg-lengthening operation because her credibility as a then-lawyer was frequently questioned.

The thing with Ethos is that obvious efforts to improve it are easily spotted and risk being counter-productive. For example Tony Blair’s shifting accent is often viewed with suspicion and, in 2011, newly elected Canadian member of parliament, Rathika Sitsabaiesan, attracted attention when it was discovered that her official photograph was retouched to remove her cleavage.


And this week, The Telegraph’s Michael Deacon poked fun at  Jeremy Hunt for changing his image to match his new department:

“Anxious to avoid giving the impression that he’s a lightweight doing a job for a heavyweight, Jeremy Hunt has been working hard to change his style.

His former style – chirpy voice, camply flailing arms, cheeky little quiff – made him both look and sound like a children’s TV presenter. All very well when you’re Culture Secretary, and your brief consists largely of getting people excited about the Olympics. Not quite so ideal when you’re Health Secretary, and your brief consists largely of death and misery.

Hence a shorter haircut (the quiff shorn to the humblest tuft) and a change of tone. His voice is now sad and damply gentle, his eyes sorrowful, his expression a permanently concerned frown. His speeches are full of words like “compassion”, “care”, “decency”, “needs”. Today he told the House about the importance of “the way a person is made to feel as a human being”.

For all his efforts to seem more serious, though, it remains hard to expunge the idea of him as a children’s TV presenter. When addressing matters of the deepest gravity, he sounds as if he’s announcing the death of a Blue Peter dog.”

Ethos must then appear to come naturally.

See also
Repetition, Repetition, Repetition

Women speak


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s