Contemporary voters are exposed to political candidates in a wide variety of ways.  Some meet them in person at political rallies. Others read articles and view photographs and media footage of candidates on television as well as online, produced of a variety of news sources.  One component all of these methods have in common, however, is the visual.  Research shows that voters form an opinion (accurate or not) about a candidate´s competence, character, and qualifications to be President, just by looking.

Voting With Our Eyes: A Picture is Worth a Thousand Votes

Airline passengers often leaf through the on-board complimentary magazine looking at the pictures instead of reading the articles.  Are voters doing the same thing when deciding who should be the next leader of the free world?  Possibly. 

Current research indicates that citizens “vote with their eyes, rather than their minds.”[1] The result?  Better-looking candidates do better in political elections.[2] The attractiveness bias can persist even when additional information about the candidate comes to light.[3]

Studies have consistently demonstrated that good-looking political candidates enjoy more favorable evaluations than their less attractive counterparts.[4] How significant is the power of attraction?  Attractiveness is more highly linked with electoral success than either trustworthiness or perceived competence. [5]  Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton could benefit from this reality, as this result holds true for both male and female candidates. [6]

Easier to Look Than to Listen

Some of you may be wondering, don´t voters both look and listen?  Not always.  Despite the time and effort candidates spend on outlining the details of economic plans, trade deals, and foreign policy, many voters are too busy to become familiar with the particulars of each candidate’s platform—or even with the issues in general.  Voters who remain ignorant of political specifics may be more likely to be influenced by a candidate´s personal characteristics.[7]

Voters who lack detailed information about candidates yet view their photos on the ballot tend to view attractive candidates as possessing qualities associated with successful politicians.[8] This is a result of voters taking cognitive shortcuts in making voting decisions.[9]  In forming impressions through photographs, voters are also influenced by demographic cues, which may bias them in favor of particular attributes.[10]

Mind Over Matter: Information Can Overcome the Power of Attraction

Thankfully, many voters take a variety of factors into consideration before going to the polls other than a candidate´s looks. For the serious voter, candidate appearance is only one factor to consider, among many. 

Many voters intentionally vote with their minds by acquiring information to supplement (or contradict) visual impressions.  They learn all they can about the candidates in order to discern the person behind the persona. Sure enough, studies show that for well-informed voters, looks matter less.

Some voters may actually attempt to “correct” for candidate attractiveness in order to avoid being biased in their evaluation.[11] Such correction may decrease, eliminate, or even reverse the positive effect of physical attractiveness.[12] However, because correction requires cognition,[13] voters who are distracted or uninformed are less likely to correct for the physical attractiveness effect.[14]

Read the Book, Not Only the Cover

Attractiveness research highlights the importance of looking past the cover and reading the content of candidate communication.  As we enter the primary season, voters are well advised to acquire as much information as they can in order to vote with both their eyes and their minds.

[1] Carl L. Palmer and Rolfe D. Peterson, ”Halo Effects and the Attractiveness Premium in Perceptions of Political Expertise,” American Politics Research Vol. 44, No. 2 (2016): 353-382 (356).

[2] Palmer and Peterson, ”Halo Effects,” at 356.

[3] Palmer and Peterson, ”Halo Effects,” at 356.

[4] William Hart, Victor C. Ottati, and Nathaniel D. Krumdick, “Physical Attractiveness and Candidate Evaluation: A Model of Correction,” Political Psychology, Vol. 32, No. 2, (2011): 181-203. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9221.2010.00812.x.

[5] Niclas Berggren, Henrik Jordahl, and Panu Poutvaara, ”The Looks of a Winner: Beauty and Electoral Success,” Journal of Public Economics Vol. 94 (2010): 8-15 (8).

[6] Berggren et al., at 8.

[7] Berggren et al., ”The Looks of a Winner,” at 8.

[8] Susan A. Banducci, Jeffrey A. Karp, Michael Thrasher, and Colin Rallings, "Ballot Photographs as Cues in Low-Information Elections,” Political Psychology, Vol. 29, No. 6 (2008): 903-917. 

[9] Banducci et al., ”Ballot Photographs,” at 903-904.

[10] Banducci et al., ”Ballot Photographs,” at 904.

[11] Hart et al., ”Physical Attractiveness.”

[12] Hart et al., ”Physical Attractiveness.”

[13] Hart et al., ”Physical Attractiveness,”at 182.

[14] Hart et al., ”Physical Attractiveness.”

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