Political scientist finds “effects of appearance more extreme” in the United States: “Up to eleven percentage points can be gained on account of appearance alone” for U.S. Congressional candidates.
FREIBURG, Germany — Political researchers and pundits have long wondered if voters are more inclined to support a particular candidate based off of their physical looks and attractiveness. Now, two recent studies conducted in Germany are offering up an answer to this political conundrum. While looking good may sway some voters towards a particular candidate — especially for Americans, researchers say that actual policies and party affiliations ultimately make the biggest impact on voters’ decisions.
The first study focused on the 2017 German federal election, and researchers concluded that candidates did in fact benefit from attractive looks, as well as appearing “competent” in photographs taken during the campaign trail. Overall, the model used for the study found that a candidate considered more attractive than his or her rival can enjoy an electoral advantage of up to 3.8 percentage points.
“The positive aspect of attractiveness may be the strongest, however direct candidates who are rated as more competent also do significantly better than those who are seen to be less competent,” explains Dr. Sebastian Jäckle from the University of Freiburg’s Department of Political Science in a statement.
Interestingly, Dr. Jäckle also notes that appearing more likable did not seem to induce any statistically significant advantage for candidates.
The second set of research investigated the United States House of Representatives elections, and actually found that appearance matters more to American voters than Germans, at least.
“The effect of appearance is more extreme in the U.S. on account of the strong personalization of political life. Appearance influences choice of Congressional candidates far more severely: up to eleven percentage points can be gained on account of appearance alone,” Dr. Jäckle comments.
Circling back to the first study focusing on Germany, Dr. Jäckle and his team used two earlier studies conducted in 2013 to compare if the effect of three traits among candidates; attractiveness, likability and perceived competence became more or less influential in voting decisions between the 2013 and 2017 German federal elections.
“We wanted to find out whether the effects observed in 2013 have changed, what characteristics in appearance are especially powerful, and whether they have a stronger effect under specific conditions,” Dr. Jäckle articulates.
The research team discovered that looks and attractiveness did indeed seem to be more important to German voters in 2017 than in 2013. This observation led the study’s authors to conclude that electoral behavior in Germany is slowly becoming more similar to the United States.
Additionally, the research revealed that candidate gender plays a role as well. When two men are facing off in an election, looks don’t matter as much to voters. Conversely, whenever a woman candidate is involved, whether that be two women running against each other or a male candidate opposed to a female candidate, looks matter more to voters.
Both studies used online surveys that showed participants 30 different pairs of real candidates who had competed against each other in previous elections. Within a short amount of time, each participant was asked to choose the candidates they instinctively considered more attractive, competent, and likable based solely off of the images.
“Unlike the common practice of drawing on relatively small groups of students for such ratings, both studies drew on a far larger and more diverse sample of 700 and 5,400 people respectively,” Dr. Jäckle adds.
The study’s authors believe their findings are incredibly important to both politicians and voters alike, considering the fact that just one or two percentage points could be the difference between victory or defeat in a close election.
“It is comparatively easy to influence attractiveness and competence ratings by changing one’s appearance. “This alone could help to gain one or two additional percentage points in some electoral districts – which can certainly make the difference between winning and losing.” he concludes.
The U.S. centric study is published in the scientific journal American Politics Research.