Do looks matter at the ballot box?

A recent study conducted by Swedish and Finnish economists found that political candidates on the right-wing side of the spectrum were considered more physically attractive, and people were more likely to vote for them at the ballot box.

The study compared election results from parliamentary and municipal elections held in Finland in 2003 and 2004 respectively with an online poll of Swedes, Americans and other non-Finns to determine how the 1,357 participating Finnish candidates ranked in terms of beauty.

More than 2,500 non-Finns were shown photographs of each candidate, with no indication of which side of the political spectrum they stood on, and were asked to rank them on a scale from one (very ugly) to five (very beautiful).

“We have found that candidates on the right are considered to look better than those on the left. We have also found that they benefit from this in elections – you could say that there is a form of beauty premium,” Bergren said.

As the article points out, previous studies have found that attractive people make more money than their less attractive counterparts, so it shouldn’t surprise us that looks influence other aspects of life as well. However, the study’s methodology bothers me somewhat.

The article states (as per the quoted section above) that 2,500 non-Finns were shown photos of each candidate without being provided any information about their politics. The study participants were simply asked to rank the individuals based on looks. The researchers then compared these looks-based rankings with each candidate’s success in parliamentary and municipal election and determined that there was some correlation between how physically attractive a candidate was perceived to be and their success at the ballot box. Unfortunately, we don’t know how much more successful the pretty people were – the article doesn’t provide that information.

But that is the only thing, as far as I can tell, that the study participants were asked to do – rank each candidate based on looks. They weren’t asked if they’d actually vote for that person – the researchers simply correlated the beauty findings with election outcomes, and determined that “right-wingers” were considered more attractive, and that more candidates (but we don’t know how many) who were ranked as attractive also ended up being elected; in other words, right-wing politicians are more attractive and because of that, more likely to be elected. In my opinion, that’s a somewhat tenuous assumption.

Granted, the article doesn’t reveal much about the actual study, so it’s perhaps somewhat unfair of me to critique it this way since I don’t have all the facts, but these are some of the problems I have with the study’s conclusions.

First of all, it’s one thing to find someone physically attractive, it’s another to agree with them politically. For a lot of voters, perhaps even most (I’d like to think it’s the case for most), the candidate’s politics do matter. For example, I agree with people that Sarah Palin is a physically attractive woman. Her politics, however, are not, at least not to me. I would never vote for her because of her politics anymore than I’d vote for Mitt Romney because of his politics, even though I do agree that he is at least somewhat attractive.

The flipside of this is that shared policies and beliefs can increase the appeal of someone who is less physically attractive. So can intellect – many people find that far more attractive than physical appearance.

If the researchers had also polled voters as to why they voted for their candidate of choice and also asked them to rank the candidates in terms of physical appeal, the study may have revealed more. Perhaps they are right, that more attractive people do tend to run for right-of-centre parties, and that physical appearance matters more to those on the right – a claim the researchers are really speculating about, but I still tend to believe that people vote for these candidates first and foremost because they share certain political beliefs and values. The physical attractiveness of a candidate might initially make a voter more open to considering what that candidate has to say, but ultimately, if they disagree with that candidate’s positions, I doubt very much they’ll end up voting for them, no matter how attractive the candidate might be.

Granted, there are some people, perhaps more than I’m willing to admit, who don’t follow politics closely, or at all, who turn up to vote without really knowing the issues, and who might simply vote for the best looking face on a poster. The study does specificially refer to the issue of open list voting, where voters have at least some influence on the order in which a party’s candidates are elected (in party-list proportional voting systems). But here too – the voter has already decided to vote for a specific party – he or she is simply ranking various candidates from that party. In such an instance, perhaps attractiveness might be a factor – perhaps even an important one. A voter might agree in general with a given party’s position, but not necessarily be that familiar with the differences between the various candidates that party put forward. If this is the case, did the voter decide to vote for that party because they had the most physically attractive candidates, or did they choose the party because of its policies, but then perhaps rank party candidates based in part on their looks? We don’t know.

This is still an interesting premise that certainly deserves further investigation. On a purely anecdotal basis, I work in a political environment, and I have found that I can often identify people’s political affiliation (which party caucus they are staffers for) based not so much on looks, but on how they dress. The reality is some parties have frumpier staff than others, and the most left-wing party is the frumpiest of all. I can’t honestly say that this extends to the party’s candidates however.

It would be foolish to underestimate the role a candidate’s looks play in swaying voters, especially given the media saturation of most political campaigns in western democracies. Media favours soundbites over policies, campaigns focus on the superficial rather than substance. A good-looking candidate who can come up with clever catch phrases that play well on TV will have a decided edge over a candidate who is perhaps frumpier, older, less attractive, and who can’t – or refuses to – sum up complex policy ideas into something that can be communicated via Twitter.

But does this mean the pretty face will always win?

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Radical Centrist