The Pretty Face Effect on Elections

Understanding the influence of pretty faces

Posted Sep 17, 2012

        Luskin's Learning Psychology Series - No. 34

Candidates, Elections, Appointments and The Media Psychology Effect

The case is strong that Movies, television and social media such as YouTube now influence public perception of the “ideal” look of a political candidate. As it has evolved, “the pretty face effect” has created an opportunity for many actors to successfully cross from motion pictures and television into politics either by appointment or election. High profile examples of transitions include U. S. Ambassadors Shirley Temple Black and John Gavin, mayors Jack Kelly (Maverick), Clint Eastwood and Jerry Springer, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Senators Fred Thompson and George Murphy, and President Ronald Reagan. Visual appeal in film, television and social media was absolutely central to the success of each celebrity mentioned in being elected or appointed to public office.

Comparing actors and politicians

Let’s explore appearance factors that help celebrities transition into public service. Studies of brain neuroscience and anthropological psychology offer interesting relevant case studies (Ramashandran, 2011). Opportunity plus gifts of nature converge in defining the visual characteristics of polititicians and the actors who have been successful. In general, voters, because of natural biological procreative drives, are predisposed to be attracted to those who have a healthy appearance and symmetrical features (Rhodes, 2002). If you look at winners in elections, those with even features are identified as having persuasive appeal. Biologically, this effect is simply natural selection at work. It is stimulated by the fundamental “old brain” pro-creative drive that ignites the urge to seek strong, healthy partners. Visual appeal is a force in selection. Visually appealing symmetrical faces of actors and politicians are a definite asset in attracting voter attention.

Actors set trends

Movies, television and new phenomena such as YouTube, LinkedIn, and Facebook, etc., add a powerful social media influence definitely affecting behavior. The way men and women perceive themselves and the world around them, including the way we dress, behave and speak are cultural affectations that are increasingly understood as we learn more about mirror neurons and “the mirror effect” in fostering widespread copying coupled with the primal biological drives I have noted. One celebrity driven example of mirror influence is symbolized by movie icon Catherine Hepburn who is an example of a trailblazer. Hepburn portrayed strong characters that were successful business women, physicians, athletes and politicians at a time when there were few role models for women whose dreams extended beyond the accepted confines of domesticity. Hepburn frequently wore trousers before WWII, something women never dared to do until they began to mirror Hepburn who led by example.

As film, television and other social media have become increasingly sophisticated the bombardment of programs has proliferated worldwide. The perceptual lines between fictional characters and real candidates are increasingly blurred. Some of us remember the 1960 debate between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy. The American public watched the first major televised presidential debate. Polls showed that people who listened to the debate on the radio felt Richard Nixon had won on points. Conversely, the majority of those who watched the same debate on TV said John F. Kennedy had dominated. Analysis reveals that Nixon did not wear makeup and his ill fitting suit was not stylish or well-tailored. Kennedy had perfectly trimmed hair, wore makeup and a beautifully cut suit. Nixon’s appearance was much less polished and attractive than Kennedy’s appearance. On television, Kennedy looked like a suave movie star and we all know how that political race turned out. Nixon eventually learned to use the camera to his advantage. The analysis following these first debates changed attention to appearance and presentation of candidates during campaigns because of the media psychology effect.

Our lives are increasingly human centered and screen deep

The blizzard of images from our smart phones, televisions, computers and tablets saturate our lives. The cloud now rains a blizzard like bombardment of massaged media messages. Along with our morning coffee, we are showered with news headlines punctuated into to our favorite morning shows. Breaking news is an addictive media strategy. Many of the old rules don’t apply anymore. It was previously thought that a press release should not be released on Friday because of the effect of the weekend. This is no longer true. We have a 24/7 world, a receptive time zone somewhere and a fast response media that is different from what we had in the 20th century. The whole media and communications industry is changing because of the implications of the new phenomena. A new bevy of self appointed media consultants and pundits has emerged. New insight is coming from our growing understanding of “why man behaves,” and what influences that behavior.

All news is local news

The global power and persuasion of media is increasingly intense as we move through the 21st century. Witness the diverse issues in the currently raging drama in the Middle East now spanning the world and affecting our daily lives. Politicians holding or running for office make pronouncements that are central to breaking news every day. Professional advisors are acutely aware that the connection between political and physical image is strong and measurable. The visual detail of HDTV now propels candidates into anxious searches for Botox, tactically highlighted hair, cosmetic dentistry and the new wave of bronzing. Media training has become a mantra of campaign advisors. Media Psychology and technology are increasingly blended based on what is now understood in cognitive neuropsychology about how what we see influences behavior. We have more new information from studying MRI and other behavioural results from the last five years, than ever before. News media scrutinize every comment and gesture searching for clues that will expose who an office-seeker really is. Elections today are up close and personal. Embedded in all of this is the influential quest for the pretty look.

Media featuring politicians, from comedy to documentaries to drama, create the illusion of insight into a political candidate. Through the years there has been a deterioration of respect for politicians. This is reflected in movies and television. The theme in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) was that the personal integrity, embodied in the film’s hero Jimmie Stewart, was inherent in the individuals we elected and the assertion that any corruption in our political system was microscopic, would always be exposed and then eradicated by an overwhelmingly honest majority. That classic film felt real, inspired us and made us want to be better citizens. We would be hard-pressed to name recent films that have that affect. In fact some networks have been accused of intentionally trying to manipulate public perception. “Wag the dog” gave us an ingenious film metaphor and title.

Media is a powerful vehicle for the psychology of persuasion

Screen depictions can be tools for good or evil. Professor Albert Bandura’s famous 1963 experiment in social learning theory, the Bobo Doll Study, confirms that behaviors can be strongly influenced by studying the behaviors other people that we see in media (Bandura, 1971). A group of children watched adults on camera behaving aggressively towards an inflatable toy, the Bobo Doll. The children subsequently repeated the same aggressive behavior towards the Bobo Doll.

Certainly, there are many good and helpful behaviors to be learned through media and we see this when viewers identify and become attached to a celebrity or character on screen. The audience may emulate the characters’ attitude, dress or speech and even acquire gestures or mannerisms. In psychology this is called the Mirror Effect.

Good looks influence opinions about ability

Handsome, symmetrical looks can sway a jury, an election, and even lead to a second date. Looks sell products; establish trends in fashion, food and lifestyle. Character actors are typically cast as the “unlikely” hero, the best friend or the comedic relief in movies. While there are exceptions, handsome or beautiful actors are shown as multi faceted characters with strength, compassion, charisma and believability. Both character and lead actors are cast based on looks as well as ability to perform.

Candidates carefully poll every behavior

It has been thought that children are susceptible because they are less able to discern between reality and fantasy. Susceptibility may be equally common with adults. The film Avatar offers an interesting case study. Director James Cameron and others have evolved and applied the theory of the “uncanny valley” to describe audience perception of, and emotional responses to, electronically created characters that simulate human form and behavior their ultimate. It is possible to imbue avatars with such an extraordinary level of physical perfection, intellectual capacity and emotional appeal that they can be idealized by viewers to an extent that may allow the audience to “connect” to avatars with an intensity that may surpass their ability to connect to human counterparts. If the complex blend of human and superhuman attributes is so skillfully presented it seems transparent, one may temporarily cross over into the “uncanny valley” with a true suspension of disbelief. This is what actors and creative producers try to do with portrayals and sophisticated animation to influence an audience’s emotional reaction and subsequent behavior. The outcome is an enhanced sense of reality. Media has always capitalized on theories of attention and advertisers, movie stars and politicians who truly understand psychology, try to present themselves and their products in ways that are a bit more than real thereby becoming the most attractive and the most appealing.

Spin is the name of the game

It is interesting to analyze the recent efforts to spin the presentation of movie and television Icon Clint Eastwood’s empty chair. Those who want him to be effective applaud and praise the genius of his presentation. Those who want to use it to demean the candidate, try to ambush Eastwood’s presentation. In my view, his presentation was extraordinary and actually quite successful because we are still talking about it. However, my purpose here is to simply highlight this as a good example of “spin” from both sides in an effort to gain an advantage by creating “group think.”

Candidates from Central Casting

Presidential candidates Barak Obama and Mitt Romney both have symmetrical features like the movie stars in the fictional film portrayals described earlier. Actors and politicians look uncannily similar for the reasons I have explained. Each presidential candidate in the high stakes 2012 election has appealing features and is working hard to exploit the media psychology effect in order to “Wag the Dog.”


Bandura, A. (1971). Social Learning Theory (1st ed.). New York: Prentice Hall

Rhodes, G., Zebrowitz, L. (2002). Facial attractiveness : evolutionary, cognitive, and social perspectives (1 ed. Vol. 1). Westport, CT: Ablex.

Ramashandran, V.S., (2011) The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neueoscientests quest for what makes us human,W.W. Norton Co., New York


Dr. Bernard Luskin received the APA Lifetime Achievement Award for contributions to Media Psychology, is an APA Fellow and is President-Emeritus of the Society for Media Psychology and Technology, the Media Psychology Division (46) of The American Psychological Association. Bernie Luskin has been CEO of eight colleges and universities and several divisions of Fortune 500 companies. Contact:


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