Sunday NY Times: A Facial Theory of Politics

The 22 April Sunday New York Times article entitled ‘A facial theory of politics’ bears relevance to Social Role Valorization theory teaching about image enhancement. The article discusses how the personal appearance of candidates for political office has a measurable influence on how people vote.

As taught in SRV and PASSING, one of the aspects or channels of image enhancement is personal appearance. The various elements of personal appearance, individually and in combination (SRV monograph, Wolfensberger, 2004, p. 68; APPEAR Tool, Wolfensberger, 2009, p. 15) do influence social perception, how we perceive other people. The article reported on a series of studies looking at what appearance factors contributed to a perception that someone is ‘more able,’ as this could have a bearing on voting. What appearance factors contributed to a perception of ability? From the article:

“… for example, eyes with more curvature on the top than the bottom; hair that is short and parted on the side or combed back; a hairline that comes to a slight widow’s peak; a broad or round face; and a smile.”

This quote highlights some things we cannot typically control (e.g., eye shape) but also some simple things we can influence (e.g., hair style, a smile).

Our perceptions of others lead us to make judgments about these others, including about their personal qualities. From the article:

“The photos were not of actual candidates but of models (all white males dressed in coat and tie) whose visages, in a prior survey with different volunteers, had been given either high or low marks with regard to perceived qualities like integrity, competence and leadership ability.”

A person’s image will affect how others perceive the person, positively or negatively, and thus can influence whether others will offer that person socially valued roles, positive opportunities for growth and learning, greater access to the ‘good things of life,’ etc. (SRV monograph, Wolfensberger, 2004, p. 62; APPEAR Tool, Wolfensberger, 2009, pp. 17, 23). From the article:

“It turns out that a candidate’s appearance — not beauty, but a look of competence — can generate a far greater vote swing than we previously thought. Furthermore, this effect is not only powerful but also subliminal. Few of us believe that appearance determines our vote, yet for a significant number of us, it may.”

Personal appearance does affect how others perceive and treat a person. As service workers, family, friend or informal helper, we can support socially devalued people, including children and adults with impairments, to have a more positive personal appearance, consistent with the societal values of their culture, their social role, the physical and social environment, etc. Thankfully, we do not even have to have the deep resources of political handlers to do so!

Marc Tumeinski

Posted on April 25, 2012 at 11:53 am by MTumeinski · Permalink
In: Uncategorized · Tagged with: , , , , ,

6 Responses

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  1. Written by Emily R
    on April 28, 2012 at 10:58 pm
    · Permalink

    I am currently enrolled in a Special Education course with Dr. Neuville, that highlights the importance of competency and the struggle in which many must face in order to have others view them as competent. I found this article quite interesting. I found it fascinating that one may not realize how they may vote for certain candidates based on our own unconscious factors, like how we perceive how competent they may look. We know that it is important for us to look our best. However, the fact that even the smallest thing, like the curvature of our eyes, can influence someone’s opinion of someone else’s competences is a truth we often overlook. It makes me wonder, too, if that is the reason why some people are against women for higher roles such as president. It may be the whole stereotype that women are to be submissive to males, which influences their perception of her ability along with various facial factors that the candidate may not even be aware of.

  2. Written by Ruth C.
    on April 30, 2012 at 3:54 pm
    · Permalink

    I found this post very interesting. I am in a class this semester and we have read Wolfensberger’s SRV text. We have also talked in-depth about social imagery. I found it incredibly interesting that people have found the actual facial attributes that make one person appear more “able” than another. It is also scary to think that we unconsciously allow our perceptions of that person to make judgments on their personal qualities. This seems to fall at a high level of importance in special education. Many people have a set negative image of special education and the students that fall under special education. If people so easily and often unconsciously make judgments on facial attributes, as future educators we need to make part of our priority to improve the negative images attached to the special education program.

  3. Written by Christina C.
    on April 30, 2012 at 7:22 pm
    · Permalink

    This semester I am enrolled in a special education course, and we have read and discussed the ideas of Wolf Wlofensberger. In this class we have also discussed the topic of social imagery and how it is present in our society. After reading this post I liked how social imagery is seen even in the political candidates. I was surprised when I read that we unconsciously make judgments on people based on their personal qualities, but when I started to really think about it I could believe this fact. We as people have a way of thinking, it may not always be positive but we still have mindsets on how people should look and act. When people smile, have a good hair style or dressed well, we see them as confident and competent; and in society that what we look for in a political candidate. On the other side of the spectrum there are the mindsets and the imagery that are associated very negatively on people. As a future special education teacher I feel that I need to keep these negative images out of my head in order for my students to be treated as equals and have them reach their full potential.

  4. Written by Lauren Yerkes
    on May 1, 2012 at 3:58 pm
    · Permalink

    Many times people with disabilities, as well as elderly people, are portrayed intentionally or unintentionally as scary, sad, or unable or not allowed to be touched. These images can be costly and damaging to those individuals. Breaking through this stereotypical imagery is important to allow typically devalued people to have better life experiences.

  5. Written by Allegra Acaster
    on May 2, 2012 at 5:02 pm
    · Permalink

    I am currently enrolled in a Special Education class that has been discussing a lot about Social Role Valorization. This New York Times article talks a lot about image which is also discussed in Wolfensberger’s book. They talk about how a politician looks relates to how many people vote for him or her. This shows how much society cares about what people look like and how they are perceived. This is something that Wolfensberger also spends a lot of time on in the book. He talks about how people who are valued usually have respected images, while people who are not valued usually do not have respected images. if a person is walking around in a garbage man suit they may be looked more down upon than someone who is dressed professionally like they are going to an office. Overall appearance means a lot to society and this can affect whether a person is valued or devalued.

  6. Written by Michelle M.
    on May 28, 2012 at 11:02 pm
    · Permalink

    The ideas in this post made me think back to a book a read a few years ago and its relevance regarding SRV. The book was Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell. If you haven’t read it, it discusses the way you can look at someone or something for a second and acquire enough information to make a decision or judgment about what or who you are looking at. There are certainly many things that effect the way we as individuals think and reason but what was interesting to me was the results of the Implicit Association Test. In chapter 3, Gladwell discusses this test and provides samples of it. For example:

    Classify the following as quickly as you can
    Boy Girl
    ___ Amy___
    ___ Joe___
    ___ Carl___
    ___ Sue___

    For most this is very easy. He makes the activity a bit more challenging by making associations such as male /career and female/family followed by more challenging yet by switching to male/family and female/career. For most of the readers he suggests that these classifications would be quite simple. Then something interesting happens, he provides a sort that slowed him down when he participated in the activity. The associations were European-American/Bad and African American/Good. His purpose in doing this is to show that despite what you may claim are your feelings regarding other cultures or social groups, that there exists in your mind a subconscious understanding of the world around you and that it is very difficult to escape it. This idea leads me to wonder that if SRV theory continues to grow and chance social perceptions of the devalued; if it combats stereotypes and genuinely creates a substantial change in the world, how will those split second judgments change? Will they simply be replaced? How much of what we understand of others and the ideas that we have of others on a subconscious level can be changed?

    Based on the assertions of Gladwell, your suggestion of doing what you can to encourage the socially devalued to look the way valued members of society look may have a profound effect on how they are seen and judged. If we do, in fact, assign a value and identity to people in a moment of looking at them, a person who looks like he or she holds valued societal roles is more likely to be treated as such.


    Gladwell, M. (1995). The Warren Harding Error: Why We Fall For Tall, Dark and Handsome Men. In Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. (1st ed.). (pp. 77-84). New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.

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