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Hey Good Lookin’: How Beauty Affects the Ballot

The more TV a less-informed voter watches, the more likely he or she is to choose a political candidate based on appearance.

| October 25th, 2011
Ethan Miller/Getty ImagesThe Republican Presidential candidates at a debate
Republican Presidential Candidates

“Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest one of all?” Turns out that’s not just a classic fairy tale line, it’s how many Americans are electing politicians.

A study out of the Massachusetts Institute Of Technology (MIT) found that just like Disney villains, our political process could be suffering from an obsession with looks too. But the beauty factor runs deeper than just plain old being pretty. In this glossy media age, it seems candidates that look like a stereotypical successful politician have a better chance of becoming one.

Past research has found that attractive or more capable-looking candidates fare better in elections. But in this case, the researchers dug in and found one possible influence.

MORE: What Makes a Face Beautiful?

The study uses data from 35 gubernatorial and 29 Senate races in 2006 correlated with the results of a survey measuring voter intent, general levels of political knowledge, and hours of television exposure.

Researchers Gabriel S. Lenz and Chappell Lawson found a direct correlation between the amount someone watched TV and their propensity towards a ballot box bias based on a candidate’s appearance, if the voter was considered a "low-knowledge" voter.

"It's amazing how consistent this pattern is," study co-author Professor Lenz noted.

When it came to electing a governor, the type of campaign with plenty of money to flood the market with commercials, people who tuned in a little more than average were 7 percent more likely make their decision on appearance. Full fledged couch potatoes, who were also deemed “low-knowledge” for their ignorance on where the candidates stand on the issues, were 11 percent more likely to vote based on who they deemed better looking—and that number jumped with Senatorial races to 16 percent for TV lovers.

QUIZ: Measure Your Face Proportions

No surprise to the researchers, the data continued to show that senatorial races, which typically see less media attention and exposure, suffered even more from the lack of well-educated voters.

Ultimately, when it came to these less informed respondents who watch more TV, the senatorial candidate, “with the highest [physical appearance] competency rating would receive about 35 percentage points more vote share than a candidate with the lowest appearance rating among that group of voters—an even larger effect than for the gubernatorial races,” the study found.

Although the looks-based bias concluded in these statistics seems daunting, there appears to be an antidote that can make any voter impervious to images no matter how much he or she loves television shows: staying informed on the issues. The study concluded, “While television appears to exacerbate the effect of candidate appearance among the bottom quartile of political knowledge, it does not appear to do so among more politically knowledgeable individuals.”

So, as the 2012 presidential election looms, keep these findings in mind. Knowledge is the electoral Kryptonite that evens the political playing field. It’s a small price to pay, especially if it means we can keep watching as much television as we want, guilt-free.

MORE: Looks Discrimination: Can You Sue?

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