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The Presidential Election: What Did Appearance Have To Do With It?

The way a candidate looks influences the way you vote—whether you realize it or not.

Jay LaPrete/Getty Images
voting 2012 election

As millions of Americans made their way to the polls this week, psychologists were given a unique opportunity to study the factors that influence electoral outcomes.

Of course, voting is an incredibly complex process and all sorts of factors are known to influence voting decisions, such as partisanship, ideological agreement, and judgements about economic performance. So it might seem strange that some psychologists would focus on the appearance of electoral candidates.

Yes, that’s right: their appearance! It turns out that, in the absence of the traditional factors I mentioned earlier, a candidate’s appearance has an impact on electoral outcomes. Consider one early study in which researchers asked high school students to rate the attractiveness of candidates from the Parliament of Canada.1 The researchers didn’t say anything about the targets being politicians and participants didn’t appear to recognize any of the politicians.

The study showed that attractive candidates obtained an average of 32 percent of votes cast in their electoral districts, compared with an average of just 11 percent for less attractive candidates. What’s more, there were substantially more winning candidates from the attractive group than from the less attractive group. In short, this study showed that the more attractive a candidate the greater the proportion of the vote they obtained from their electoral district.

MORE: Older Candidates Fare Better During Wartime

There’s now a good deal of evidence from both controlled experiments and real-world election studies indicating that voters like attractive candidates. Consider the intriguing case of the first ever televised presidential debate between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy in 1960. Nixon appeared haggard, having just returned from a hospital visit, while Kennedy looked well-rested after a visit to California. As Frank Stanton, president of CBS at the time, put it, “Kennedy was bronzed beautifully… Nixon looked like death.”

As part of a survey conducted the day after the debate, respondents were asked which candidate they thought had won. While radio listeners gave Nixon the edge, television viewers overwhelmingly scored Kennedy as the winner. It has been suggested that television allowed Kennedy display a superior image, even if he wasn’t necessarily better on the issues, and it is this that gave him the win among television viewers2.

The effect of a candidate’s appearance on their apparent success in elections is due to the "attractiveness bias," which I’ve discussed in a previous column. Put simply, we assume that attractive people have all sorts of positive qualities, including those we value in politicians, such as trustworthiness and reliability. The visual appearance of a candidate activates this stereotype and we think that attractive candidates will be better at the job.

Some researchers have suggested that it isn’t attractiveness that matters necessarily, but rather perceptions of a candidate’s competency. In one study, participants were presented with the faces of winners and runners-up from gubernatorial elections in the U.S. (which are perhaps the most important elections in the country after the presidential election) and asked to decide who was more competent.3 Results showed that judgements of competence made before the elections predicted almost 69 percent of the gubernatorial races, suggesting that judgements of competence from faces may have affected voting decisions.

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1 Efran M, Patterson, E (1974). Voters vote beautiful: The effect of physical appearance on a national debate. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science, 6: 352-356. 2 Druckman JB (2003). The power of television images: The first Kennedy-Dixon debate revisited. The Journal of Politics, 65: 559-571. 3 Ballew CC II, Todorov A (2007) Predicting political elections from rapid and unreflective face judgments. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the USA, 104: 17948-17953. 4 Tsfati Y, Elfassi DM, Waismel-Manor I (2010). Exploring the association between Israeli legislators’ physical attractiveness and their television coverage. International Journal of Press/Politics, 15: 175-192. 5 Bailenson JN, Iyengar S, Yee N, Collins NA (2008). Facial similarity between voters and candidates causes influence. Public Opinion Quarterly, 72: 935-961. 6 Stulp G, Buunk AP, Verhulst S, Pollet TV (in press). Tall claims? Sense and nonsense about the importance of the height of US presidents. Leadership Quarterly. 7 Banducci SA, Karp JA, Thrasher M, Rallings C (2008). Ballot photographs as cues in low-information elections. Political Psychology, 29: 903-917.

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