A study published in American Politics Research suggests that the electoral success of U.S. House candidates is partly based on perceptions of their physical attractiveness.
Psychology research has long demonstrated the existence of a “beauty premium”, whereby physically attractive people receive benefits in various areas of life. One of these areas is politics, where attractiveness has been linked to electoral outcomes.
Study authors Sebastian Jäckle and his team wanted to build off this research in several ways. They designed a study to explore whether the simple attractiveness of a candidate’s face is most important for electoral success, or whether it is the competence and likeability associated with their face that matters. They also considered how other features, such as gender, may affect the interplay between appearance and vote choice.
A survey presented participants with photos of candidates for the 2016 U.S. House of Elections. To eliminate the interference of pre-existing judgments, a German sample was recruited and participants were asked to disclose whether they recognized any of the candidates.
Each participant was shown 30 pairs of faces and asked to rate which of the two candidates they found most beautiful, most likable, and most competent.
Researchers found that attractiveness — but not likeability or competency — had a positive effect on a candidate’s vote share. They report, “A change in perceived attractiveness from 0 to 1 (i.e., from no one rating the winner as more attractive to 100% rating the winner as the more attractive candidate) increases the distance in the first votes between the winner and the runner-up by 11.97 percentage points.”
Remarkably, this advantage was true even when controlling for factors like partisanship, presidential votes, total money spent on the campaign, and the economic state of a given district.
There are several proposed mechanisms for this attractiveness advantage when it comes to electoral success. As the researchers describe, “During campaigns, pictures of the candidates are readily available (e.g., from campaign posters or newspapers) and the electorate uses these pictures as “thin slices” (Ambady & Rosenthal, 1992) of information to infer personal traits of the contestants which they cannot readily learn about otherwise.”
This creates what researchers call a “halo effect”, where the easily accessed trait of appearance taints an observer’s judgments of other traits. Thus, people may subconsciously make inferences about a candidate’s other attributes based on their perceptions of the candidate’s appearance.
Interesting, attractiveness was only important to success when it came to male-only districts and mixed-gender districts. In female-only districts, attractiveness did not affect vote share, but likeability did.
“At this point, we can only speculate why likability seems to work as an evaluative dimension for women, but not for men,” the researchers discuss. “One option might be that the attractiveness heuristic at least in politics works differently for men and women. While voters seem to have no problem basing their decision in male only or mixed districts on the role-unrelated factor beauty, this is not the case for female candidates.”
Jäckle and colleagues describe the profound implications of their findings for electoral candidates. “Candidates aware of the mechanism could actively try to shape their appearance and thus boost not only their attractiveness rating but also their chances at the elections. Our data show that, for example, a simple change from wearing glasses to contact lenses could already make a difference.”
The study, “A Catwalk to Congress? Appearance-Based Effects in the Elections to the U.S. House of Representatives 2016”, was authored by Sebastian Jäckle, Thomas Metz, Georg Wenzelburger, and Pascal D. König.