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.
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.
There are other explanations why attractive candidates do better in elections. For one thing, the amount of coverage a candidate gets in the news media is an important element in shaping their success and it is possible that attractive candidates get more coverage because journalists, too, succumb to the attractiveness bias. In one study, participants rated the attractiveness of members of the Israeli Knesset, unaware that they were evaluating Israeli politicians. The results of this study showed that, all things being equal, physically attractive members of the Knesset received greater coverage on national television news.4
And if candidates are seen on television more often, voters may become more familiar with them, which in turn heighten perceptions of the candidate’s competence. This is known as the "mere exposure effect" and it is something I have looked at previously. But untangling the effects of mere exposure may be difficult: familiarity should benefit the incumbent, who is typically more familiar to voters than challengers.
Moreover, the mere exposure effect need not be based on prior exposure. One study manipulated familiarity with a political candidate by blending the candidate’s face with a participant’s face.5 This blending process should heighten familiarity—after all, no one is more familiar to us than ourselves! The study showed that the blending process led to positive evaluations of the candidate, again highlighting the importance of appearance and the mere exposure effect.
Another aspect of a candidate’s appearance that may have an impact on electoral outcomes is her or his height. In a recent study, researchers looked at the height of the candidates in 56 U.S. presidential elections since 1789.6 They found that only seven presidents were shorter than the average male and that taller candidates won the election more often than they lost. When considering the share of the popular vote, they found that the taller candidate won 67 percent, highlighting a clear height advantage.
Of course, this isn’t to say that appearance is the only thing that matters. Far from it. For instance, if all you needed to win the U.S. Presidential election is to be taller than your opponent, then Romney should have won most recently, as he’s an inch taller than Obama. In addition, the impact of a candidate’s appearance seems stronger when there is very little information about either candidate or when voters are poorly informed about politics7.
The point is, however, that appearance does matter, sometimes in ways that we don’t expect.
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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