Conservatives use emotion more effectively when campaigning: study

TORONTO – A picture can say a thousand words. In the case of politicians, which side they show in portraits may help win an election, a new study suggests.


Researchers from Flinders University in Australia examined 1,538 official photographs of conservative and liberal politicians from Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States, looking for asymmetry in posing. The study was conducted between March 10 and April 22, 2011.

The findings suggest that across nations, conservatives were more likely than liberals, to have portraits featuring the left side of the face. This left-sided preference for conservatives would allow them to communicate emotions to voters, since it’s that angle that conveys more emotions compared to the right.

“The cheek that politicians turn may serve as an important indicator of the role emotion plays in their political ideology and how they tackle ongoing social issues,” said one of the authors of the study. “Emotion is an important component in political campaigns and portraits play a significant role in voter decisions,” the study read.

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Ed Bell, a researcher from University of Western Ontario’s Brescia College says the study shows how our behaviour, including political attitude, occurs without conscious awareness.

“Conservative politicians, for example, don’t think, ‘Hmm, how can I get my message across? I’ll try striking a pose showing my left cheek, which will allow me to connect emotionally with voters,’” said Bell. “Instead, what we observe is that much of this behaviour is ‘natural’ or spontaneous rather than planned or contrived.”

Another interesting point in the study highlighted Canadian left-leaning politicians specifically. It said they had a “right-side bias.” The authors’ explanation for this was that Canadian liberals were “in fact” trying to conceal emotion. Bell says this seems unlikely.

“The uniqueness of the findings for Canada leaves us with the question, ‘Why were Canadian politicians different on this score’? There may be something truly unique about the left in Canada compared to that in other countries, but it’s hard to speculate as to what the differences might be.”

Barry McLoughlin, president of McLoughlin Media is an Ottawa-based media consultant to many politicians. He says the face is a very key indicator to the average person of a politician’s character, so finding the connectedness to the viewer, listener or reader is key. 

“When there is a dissonance between the visual and the verbal, people will believe the visual,” said McLoughlin. “The rule is the visual cancels out the content.”

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Previous studies have suggested that conservatives have stronger fear instincts, while liberals are more flexible. But explaining why conservatives are more likely to use their emotional-left in portraits still needs to be answered. 

“If left-right differences are rooted, at least partially, in genes and physiology, what role has natural selection and other evolutionary processes played in their development?” asks Bell. “Are there survival advantages to left versus right ideologies? These sorts of studies help us get closer to answers to those questions, but we still have a long way to go.”