Achoo! I'll Vote for Beautiful You

How does sickness affect who you vote for?

Posted Mar 02, 2014

I’m sick—a cold. And it’s Primary Election time in my state. I don’t feel like trekking to an early voting location, so I’m just going to hold out until Election Day. I haven’t decided who I’m going to vote for anyway, and recent research suggests my current bout with the sniffles may affect my vote choice in a strange way.

Political leaders matter

We depend on our political leaders. They are involved in and make a lot of important decisions that affect our lives, sometimes to the point of life and death. Whose income does government take, and whose income does government supplement? Which countries are our friends, and which countries are our enemies? So it’s important that our leaders remain healthy so they can carry out their duties for us.

But like a lot of us, leaders consider their health a private matter. So they often go to extreme measures to avoid disclosure of their physical frailties. President Franklin D. Roosevelt used a wheelchair in private but was very careful not to be seen in it in public. And President John Kennedy was extensively medicated to endure and conceal a wide array of physical problems, some of which are considered life threatening still today.

So we citizens don’t often have good information about the health of our leaders despite its importance to us. Instead, we have to look for signs of bad health and illness like wounds, disfigurement, obesity or emaciation, physical disabilities, and facial or other asymmetries. Because physically attractive people lack these characteristics, almost by definition, we can use physical attractiveness as a signal of good health in our leaders.

"Good looking" candidates win

A lot of research has shown that voters prefer more physically attractive candidates. But the question is, why? The dominant theory has been that this is because people ascribe positive characteristics in general to attractive people. That is, an attractive person must have a large number of other positive attributes because s/he is good looking.  

But a team of researchers at Arizona State University disagreed. Fellow Psychology Today blogger Douglas T. Kenrick (“Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life") and co-authors Andrew White and Steven Neuberg argued we are motivated by evolution to prefer physically attractive leaders because our ability to survive and reproduce is threatened when our group’s leaders are unable to carry out their duties for us. And when our concern about illness increases, our preference for physically attractive—read that as “healthy”—leaders also increases.

So they tested it

There’s nothing like a good disagreement to prompt interesting research. So the ASU team conducted four studies to test their idea. There are a lot of details, so I’ll just summarize the findings. First, they found U.S. congressional districts actually facing greater threats of sickness, as indicated by a combination of higher levels of infant mortality and shorter life expectancy, were more likely to elect more physically attractive members of Congress. Second, they found that experimentally manipulating the threat of disease (i.e., reading a story about volunteering in a geriatric ward and getting sneezed on—remember my related blog posts here  and here on disgust and politics?) increased people’s preference and willingness to vote for a more physically attractive candidate. And, finally, they found that the preference only applied regarding leaders. In other words, it was not just a preference that applied in general such as in a preference for both a good looking boss and co-worker.  

So overall they made a pretty strong case that we prefer more physically attractive leaders, and the preference is related to our evolutionary concern about sickness.

Desicions, decisions

There hasn’t been a lot of useful information from the candidates or in the media about these upcoming elections I’m going to have to vote in. Hopefully I’ll be well by then. I’d hate to think my ballot will be affected by my runny nose.

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For more information: 

White, Andrew Edward, Douglas T. Kenrick, and Steven L. Neuberg. 2013. “Beauty at the Ballot Box: Disease Threats Predict Preferences for Physically Attractive Leaders.” Psychological Science 24(12): 2429-2436. doi:10.1177/0956797613493642

In addition to writing the "Caveman Politics" blog for Psychology Today, Gregg is the Executive Director of the Association for Politics and the Life Sciences and an Associate Professor of Political Science at Texas Tech University

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