What effect does appearance focus have on men and women in their everyday life? Could it have contributed to Barack Obama's victory?

Our lab (Dr. Jamie Goldenberg, and her two graduate students, Douglas Cooper and myself) recently completed three studies in which we had university students either focus on a woman's or a man's apperance, or on their personality. Study 1 found that Michelle Obama was rated as less warm (trustworthy and sincere) and competent (capable, intelligent) when focus was on her appearance. In contrast, Barack Obama ratings were not affected by focus on his looks.

In Studies 2 and 3, we had participants watch a newscast (Brian Williams or Robin Meade) or a weather forecast. Again, females were rated as less competent and warm, but males were not. In study 2, the males were actually  rated better when focus was on their appearance. We also used non-attractive targets, and the results were the same; the female, but not the male, was rated worse when participants were told to focus on his or her appearance. In these studies, the men and women who were rated were wearing typical business attire that was modest.

These results occured for both male and female participants. Thus, it appears that even under fairly normal conditions (not explicitly sexualized) women face challenges that men do not. In so far as no one can escape some focus on their looks, these findings likely occur often in normal everyday life.

Research shows that perceptions of warmth and competence account for almost 90% of people's attitudes toward a person. And further, research shows that people who are rated as low in competence and warmth (such as the homeless) face the highest degree of prejudice.

In the past, we had participants focus on Sarah Palin's looks or her personality. Not only did appearance focus reduce perceptions of her competence, but it also made people less likely to vote for her. Thus, in so far as Barack Obama wasn't negatively impacted by this focus, and focus was on Palin's looks, McCain could have faced a unique detriment (via Palin) that Obama and Biden did not. This does not have to do with her attractiveness, but focus on her appearance (although, her looks likely did increase focus on her appearance).

When focus is on their looks, women (but not men) are viewed as (more) cold and incompetent, which more closely mimicks people's attitudes toward homeless people.

References:

Harris, L. T.,  & Fiske, S. T. (2006). Dehumanizing the lowest of the low: Neuro-imaging responses to extreme outgroups. Psychological Science, 17, 847-853.

Heflick, N.A. & Goldenberg, J.L. (2009). Objectifying Sarah Palin: Evidence that objectification causes women to be percieved as less competent and less fully human. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45, 598-601.

Heflick, N.A., Goldenberg, J.L, & Cooper, D. (in preperation). From women to objects: Effects of appearance focus and target gender on perceptions of warmth and competence. University of South Florida.

 

Note: While focus on Michelle's appearance reduced perceptions of her competence, First Lady is not as central to people's voting as VP, and as such, McCain was uniquely effected by the focus on Palin's looks.