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Keywords:

  • Physiognomy;
  • political leaders;
  • face perception;
  • U.S. presidents

Digitized facial images of Presidents Clinton, Reagan, and Kennedy were manipulated to test whether subtle feature alterations were powerful enough to shift social perceptions of them. It was expected that exaggeration of facial maturity cues would lead to shifts in perceptions of power (dominance, strength, and cunning) and warmth (honesty, attractiveness, and compassion). Each familiar face was made more neotenous by enlarging eyes and lips, and made more mature by reducing the sizes of these features. Undergraduate perceivers rated one version of each face. Though unaware of feature changes, perceivers were affected by them. In Study 1, neotenous features made Clinton seem more honest and attractive, even to perceivers who did not support him in the 1996 election. In Study 2, mature features made Kennedy, the youngest U.S. president, seem more cunning and made Reagan, the oldest president, appear less powerful and less warm; neotenous features reduced ratings of both Kennedy's and Reagan's power, whereas neotenizing the familiar face of Clinton increased ratings of his honesty and attractiveness without diminishing perceptions of his power. Overall, the results suggested that subtle alterations of proximate physiognomic cues can be used to manipulate perceivers' social perceptions of familiar political leaders.