The first election to which I paid any attention was the 1960 race between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy.  Like most of the other seventh-graders in St. Joseph’s school, I favored Kennedy.  But our preference was not based on his political positions, of which we were completely unaware.  Instead, we liked Kennedy for a very shallow reason—because he was an Irish Catholic! 

It matters little that 12 year olds base their political preferences on shallow characteristics—they can’t vote.  For democracy to work well, though, it would help if adults based their votes on deeply considered evaluations of a candidate’s political platform, and not on shallow surface features.  But alas, a host of empirical studies have demonstrated that voter’s preferences can be swayed by very shallow features, such as the candidate’s physical appearance. Indeed, many political analysts believe that Kennedy defeated Nixon because, during the first televised Presidential Debate, Kennedy simply looked better. Whereas Kennedy appeared handsome and fit, Nixon looked pale and sickly. Indeed, people who watched on TV judged Kennedy victorious, but people who had listened to their arguments on the radio gave an edge to Nixon.

Since then, a number of laboratory experiments and studies of actual voting behavior have shown that physically attractive candidates are more likely to win elections. Why?  The traditional explanation points to something psychologists call a “halo effect.” If observers can see you have one good trait, and it is highly visible, they are likely to presume that the traits they can’t see are good ones as well. Parents need to warn their children not to judge a book by a cover because the default inclination is to do just that.  

But in a series of papers just released online in the journal Psychological Science, Andrew White suggested an alternative, and less obvious, possibility: That the preference for physically attractive leaders might be linked to our evolved concerns about disease. 

The logic of the argument is this: Our ancestors belonged to groups whose members needed to coordinate their behaviors with one another. My colleagues Mark Van Vugt and Bob Hogan have reviewed a wealth of literature to suggest that group leaders function to smooth out group coordination problems. Leaders may become especially important when the group needs to confront problems, and one of the biggest recurrent problems our ancestors faced came from disease. The Black Plague wiped out substantial portions of the European population, for example. And for another in a long list of examples, when Europeans began migrating to the North America, the germs they carried along wiped out most of the indigenous Native American population. 

At such times, it would have been important to have a healthy leader. If the group leaders succumbed to a disease epidemic, that would disrupt group processes at precisely the time when the group was needing to coordinate themselves. 

How could our ancestors have chosen healthy leaders? In ancestral times, physical attractiveness would have been one cue to a person’s health. Disease often leaves obvious physical traces, so that it was rare to reach adulthood with the smooth skin, lustrous hair, clear eyes, and physical symmetry of a modern fashion model or superstar athlete. If someone did, it was a cue that he or she might have desirable genetic or learned traits (such as ability to procure a rich diet) that made them resistant to disease. Of course, none of this is presumed to be conscious, but even people living in modern Western societies continue to associate good looks with health, and in fact there is some evidence that some actual association still remains. 

If that argument were correct, then it has some testable implications: Voters' preferences for physically attractive political candidates, for example, should ebb and flow with their concerns about disease. 

Disease threats and congressional elections

Working with our research team, White collected photographs of the winners and losers in the 2010 U.S. congressional elections.  A group of research assistants rated each photo on a scale from 1 (extremely unattractive) to 7 (extremely attractive).  For each district, the team also collected information on infant mortality and life expectancy, two measures that are sensitive to an area’s overall health.  In districts with low rates of disease, it made very little difference whether a candidate was better looking than his or her opponent.  But in districts where people were less healthy, a more attractive candidate won a substantially higher portion of the votes (see the Figure).

  Because elections are often fairly close, those extra few percentage points made a real difference in the bottom line: winning the election.  Better-looking candidates' odds of winning were increased by a factor of 1.77 in relatively more disease-y districts.  

An experimental test

The findings from actual elections are correlational.  Lots of of other factors might operate in the real world to produce a spurious relationship.  So White and team conducted several controlled experiments.  In one, participants first read a disease-threat story, which involved volunteering at a geriatric ward and experiencing several disgusting events, including seeing a diseased person with an open wound, and then finding a hair in your lunch. Other participants read a self-protection story, which involved being alone in the house, and realizing that someone was breaking in.  A third group was a no-threat control, who read a story about someone organizing his or her office.  After reading the story, participants rated how important various features were in a political candidate, including power, trustworthiness, and so on.  People who had just been thinking about disease were more likely to say that physical attractiveness was important. 

British MP Luciana Berger

In a follow-up experiment, American students who read those same stories were asked whether they would vote for candidates whose photos had been taken from Parliamentary elections in Great Britain. Those who had been primed to worry about disease were significantly more likely to favor the more attractive candidates (such as Labour party's Luciana Berger, pictured).  

Deep Rationality

The link between disease concerns and a preference for attractive leader seems not only shallow, but rather irrational at first blush. Yet it makes functional sense at a deeper level.  Indeed, it is consistent with other findings showing that disease concerns are connected in functional ways to a host of human decisions, from prejudice to religiosity.  I discussed some of these in earlier blogs (e.g., The psychological immune system).  This work is part of our larger program of research exploring how human decision-making reflects the (often unconscious) influences of our evolutionary past.   That program of research—which has demonstrated several nonobvious, yet deeply rational, influences on our decisions—is described in detail in The rational animal: How evolution made us smarter than we think. 



Related links


Kenrick, D.T., & Griskevicius, V. (2013).  The rational animal: How evolution made us smarter than we think.  New York: Basic Books.

White, A.E., Kenrick, D.T., & Neuberg, S.L. (2013). Beauty at the ballot box: Disease threats predict preferences for physically attractive leaders.  Psychological Science. Published online before print October 11, 2013, doi: 10.1177/0956797613493642.

Van Vugt, M., Hogan, R., & Kaiser, R.B. (2008). Leadership, followership, and evolution: Some lessons from the past. American Psychologist, 63, 182-196.

For other interesting new findings from Andrew Edward White and his colleagues, check out his website.  

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