'Baby-faced Palestinian leaders win Israeli support'

Hebrew U study finds Palestinian political leaders who have “baby faces” are more trusted by Israeli Jews in peace talks.

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January 26, 2012 05:25
3 minute read.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas 311 (R). (photo credit: REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman)

 
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It might be one reason among many why PLO leader Yasser Arafat won no sympathy or trust from the average Israeli Jew. Palestinian political leaders who have “baby faces” are more trusted by Israeli Jews in peace negotiations than those than those with older, lined faces, according to new research by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

By subtly altering fictional politicians’ faces, Prof. Ifat Maoz of the university’s Department of Communication and Journalism studied the extent to which minor changes in appearance affect people’s judgment of politicians from the opposing side of a conflict and their peace proposals.

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In the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the research demonstrated that peace offers from baby-faced politicians had a better chance of winning over Israeli Jews than the exact same offer coming from leaders with more mature faces. (The effect of Jewish baby faces on Palestinians was not examined.) Previous research has shown that politicians’ images are often manipulated in media coverage to appear more or less favorable and that this can affect citizens’ attitudes and voting intentions towards politicians from their own state and country.

According to this study, manipulating the favorability of media images of opposing political leaders in an intractable conflict may also have a marked effect on public attitudes, and that media presenting favorable images of opponent leaders may have the potential to mobilize public support for conflict resolution through compromise.

Maoz, who is also head of the university’s Smart Family Institute of Communications, provided a group of Israeli Jews with a fictional news item containing a peace proposal and a fictional Palestinian leader’s photograph.

The person in the photograph was manipulated to appear either baby-faced or mature through a 15 percent change in the size of the eyes and lips. Respondents were then asked to evaluate the peace offer and rate the trustworthiness of this politician.

Although both images were based on the same original photograph, the baby-faced politician was judged as more trustworthy and his peace proposal received greater support than the same offer from the mature-faced politician.



“People generally associate a baby face with attributes of honesty, openness and acceptance,” explained Maoz. “Once you trust your adversary, you have a greater willingness to reach a compromise.”

In previous studies, viewers formed judgments of trustworthiness after as little as 100 milliseconds of exposure to a novel face, and certain facial features evoked feelings of warmth, trust and cooperation while minimizing feelings of threat and competition. People with relatively babyish facial characteristics such as proportionally large eyes, a round chins and thick lips are perceived as kinder, warmer, more honest and more trustworthy.

They tend to elicit more agreement with their views and help from others than mature-faced people with small eyes, a square jaw and thin lips.

These conclusions are especially important in the current technological and political environment, in which the dominance of television and Internet, combined with the proliferation of photo opportunities, photo-shopping and image consultants, means politicians’ faces are seen more than ever and their physical appearance has a greater chance of affecting the impressions, attitudes and opinions of media consumers.

The study also gauged the extent to which manipulating facial features can affect populations with different pre-existing attitudes, overcome hawkish resistance to change and increase perceptions of opponents as trustworthy. While individuals with hawkish positions held markedly negative initial attitudes towards peace and the opponents in a conflict – attitudes that tend to be rigid and resistant to change – they surprisingly showed a more significant response than dovish respondents to differences in facial maturity.

Maoz suggested that in situations of protracted conflict, the face of the enemy matters. Visual information that conveyed subtle, undetected changes in facial physiognomy was powerful enough to influence people’s judgments of opponent politicians and their peace proposals.

She added that there are situations in which a baby-face is not advantageous: “Although features of this type can lend politicians an aura of sincerity, openness and receptiveness, at the same time they can communicate a lack of assertiveness.”

“[Therefore] people tend to prefer baby-faced politicians as long they represent the opposing side, while on their own side they prefer representatives who look like they know how to stand their ground,” Maoz said.

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