Of Heads, Hair, Height and Prime Minister’s Questions

When I was first getting involved in federal policy, a mutual friend arranged a breakfast for me with Michael Deaver. In a short length of time he conveyed some lessons about Washington that have been very valuable to me, one of which is that the image is (almost) everything when a politician is speaking. There are a number of reasons for this, one is that media is international and goes to many countries where people don’t speak English, another is that many people flip through channels rapidly or simply glance up at the television as they walk through an airport, another is that newspapers will often reprint one still image from a political event that captures readers’ attention more than does the accompanying text (examples here from the Guardian and Telegraph).

I think about Deaver’s point when I watch Prime Minister’s Questions. Specifically I am struck by how people’s head shape, hair and height affect how they come across, particularly because the camera is usually over the despatch box, shooting at a somewhat downward angle.

William Hague is smart and articulate, with a wicked sense of humor that allows him to take the Michael out of his opponents. But — and I say this with the sympathy of a fellow sufferer — his bald dome gives him a bit of a glare under the lights and angled camera, which can be distracting when he speaks. And his large head and slight build make him look much shorter than he is in downward camera shots, which minimizes his gravitas (He’s about my height, a shade under six feet, but people who have only seen him on TV usually think that he is diminutive).

Harriet Harman seemed forceful until she grew out her bangs. Her longer bangs combined with the downward camera angle cause the very distracting effect of her hair swaying out over her face when she looks at her notes. She thereby commits a cardinal sin of political imagery which is obscuring one’s eyes while speaking. This creates an unwarranted, but strong, impression of evasiveness.

David Cameron has the ideal set of characteristics for the forum. He is old enough that his hair line has receded to the point that his eyes are visible even when he tilts his head downward, but he has enough hair left to avoid Hague-like blazes of reflected light. And he’s six feet tall or maybe a shade over, which is about the perfect height for the camera. Others similarly blessed in all these respects include Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg, which makes them men to watch, pun intended.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.