U.S. Presidential Election: The Psychology of Victory

Research suggests voter preference may be more about psychology than politics.

Posted Nov 03, 2020

Whatever the eventual result of the U.S. presidential election, to what extent will psychology have played a role in voting preference?

photo by Dr Raj Persaud
Sheep in Pendle UK
Source: photo by Dr Raj Persaud

A recent study entitled, "The right look: Conservative politicians look better and voters reward it," found that politicians on the right of the political spectrum, on average, look more beautiful, a finding replicated in Europe, the U.S. and Australia.

The authors, Niclas Berggren, Henrik Jordahl and Panu Poutvaara argue that as beautiful people earn more, they are more likely to oppose redistribution and so tend to end up on the right of the political spectrum.

The study, published in the academic Journal of Public Economics, contends that in an election where the voters don’t know much about the political differences between individual candidates, then the superior physical attractiveness of those on the right politically will result in an electoral advantage. The study also found that better-looking politicians are inferred by voters to stand further to the right, independently of which party they really represent.

Another recently published study entitled, "Why are right-wing voters attracted to dominant leaders? Assessing competing theories of psychological mechanisms," argues that voting preference has a lot to do with the emotional way you view the world. Using state-of-the-art face morphing software, Psycho Morph, the study morphed pictures of Norwegian male politicians to look more or less facially dominant, to investigate the impact on voting preference.

The authors, Lasse Laustsen and Michael Bang Petersen, argue that because politically right-wing people view life as fundamentally more hazardous, beset with conflict between rival groups, this explains the conservative preference for more dominant candidates. This is more adaptative for the survival of the followers, given a dangerous world, where dominance equates naturally, in the minds of such voters, to competence.

The authors cite previous psychological research which finds that Republicans are perceived as more powerful than Democrats who, in contrast, appear warmer.

The authors from Aarhus University, Denmark, argue that the right-wing preference for dominance arises when in a world full of enemies, the essential competence such voters are looking for in a leader is specifically the aggressive overpowering of adversaries. This theory suggests the election result might hinge on whether the pandemic is psychologically seen as an issue where the virus is viewed as an enemy to be overcome.

The results of their research, published in the academic journal The Leadership Quarterly, suggest that while leaders of conservative parties might need to send indicators of dominance to attract their natural followers, such signals will in fact hurt leaders within liberal or left-wing parties, because of the contrasting world outlook of their electoral base.

Psychologists Sarah DiMuccio and Eric Knowles from New York University have just published an academic study with contrasting results – one interpretation suggests that recent U.S. presidential elections could be at the mercy of psychological forces ignited when men feel their masculinity is threatened.

They studied a phenomenon referred to as "Precarious Manhood," an emotional process unleashed when manliness is endangered. Experiments that challenge men’s masculinity expose the phenomenon, for example, getting men to engage in typically feminine tasks, such as hair braiding, or giving men false feedback on tests indicating that they score unusually high in feminine knowledge. Men subject to such threats to their masculine identity seem to then experience heightened apprehension. This then leads to activities such as punching boxing punch bags harder, displaying more antagonism towards women, administering more severe shocks to confederates, and behaving more aggressively toward gay men.

Sarah DiMuccio and Eric Knowles suggest that men can also affirm their masculinity by expressing aggression in their politics. Endorsing politicians that appear hard, robust, and powerful, in other words by aligning themselves with belligerent policies, so-called "precarious" men may be restoring their status as “real men.”

Sarah DiMuccio and Eric Knowles cite a previous study that found that following a threat to their male identity, men’s support for George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq, plus approval of his handling of the Iraq War went up.

Sarah DiMuccio and Eric Knowles also cite another previous study which found that threatened men were more supportive of a masculine president, which in turn led to increased support for Donald Trump, alongside decreased support for Hillary Clinton, in the 2016 presidential election.

These psychologists then go on to point out in their research paper, published in the academic journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, that perhaps more than any politician in recent history, Donald Trump could be viewed as entrenching his political identity in old-style machismo. Trump can appear dominant, unyielding, and virile. From threatening foreign nations to alluding positively to penis size, and testosterone levels, Sarah DiMuccio and Eric Knowles contend that Trump may be positioning manhood center stage.

This display of virility appears to strongly reverberate with many American men. During the 2016 election, Trump’s hard-hitting and unbending brand of politics was not just generally electorally popular, it also attracted a disproportionate number of male voters.

In one study, conducted by Sarah DiMuccio and Eric Knowles, men’s dread of failing to meet masculine expectations predicted support for aggressive policies (e.g., the death penalty), but not policies lacking belligerent features (e.g., affirmative action).

The psychologists are careful to point out that they do not claim that traditional masculinity is inherently depraved. For instance, they point out that being assertive, competitive, and strong (stereotypically masculine traits) can be beneficial across many life domains. Likewise, being merciful, empathetic, and co-operative (stereotypically feminine traits) can also be undesirable at times.

The research paper entitled, "Precarious Manhood Predicts Support for Aggressive Policies and Politicians," included further studies examining Google searches which assessed the relationship between regional levels in the United States of "Precarious Manhood" and elections. The use of search terms related to masculine anxieties correlated with Donald Trump’s regional vote share in the 2016 general election.

The search terms typed into Google that were used by the researchers as signaling masculine anxiety, or precarious manhood, included search terms such as, penis enlargement, penis size, testosterone, Viagra, and hair loss.

Sarah DiMuccio and Eric Knowles do not claim that so-called "precarious manhood" is the sole reason people support aggressive policies, Donald Trump, or the GOP. They have sought to examine just one possible psychological influence on these preferences.

Sarah DiMuccio and Eric Knowles observe that women have recently made significant inroads into male-dominated careers, and it may be that so-called "precarious" men seek to redress this threatening intrusion into traditionally masculine roles by voting for Trump and other GOP politicians.

In a study entitled, "Election systems, the 'beauty premium' in politics, and the beauty of dissent," Niklas Potrafke Marcus Rösch and Heinrich Ursprung found that in German elections to parliament, more physically attractive members of parliament, once elected, tend to dissent more often from the party line. This finding, published in the European Journal of Political Economy, is one of the rare examples of research that helps voters figure out how a candidate is actually going to perform once elected.

Dr. Peter Bruggen passed away in 2018. While this post was written by Dr. Raj Persaud, Dr. Bruggen's name is retained biographically as a tribute to his contributions overall. 


The right look: Conservative politicians look better and voters reward it. NiclasBerggren, Henrik Jordahl and Panu Poutvaar. Journal of Public Economics Volume 146, February 2017, Pages 79-86

Why are right-wing voters attracted to dominant leaders? Assessing competing theories of psychological mechanisms LasseLAustsen Michael Bang Petersen The Leadership Quarterly Volume 31, Issue 2, April 2020, 101301

Precarious Manhood Predicts Support for Aggressive Policies and Politicians. Sarah H. DiMuccio, Eric D. Knowles First Published October 13, 2020 Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167220963577

Willer, R., Rogalin, C. L., Conlon, B., Wojnowicz, M. T. (2013). Overdoing gender: A test of the masculine overcompensation thesis. American Journal of Sociology, 118, 980–1022. https://doi.org/10.1086/668417

Carian, E. K., Sobotka, T. C. (2018). Playing the Trump card: Masculinity threat and the U.S. 2016 presidential election. Socius: Sociological Research for a Dynamic World, 4, 1–6. https://doi.org/10.1177/2378023117740699

Election systems, the “beauty premium” in politics, and the beauty of dissent. Niklas Potrafke, Marcus Rösch and Heinrich Ursprung. European Journal of Political Economy Volume 64, September 2020, 101900