Too Ugly to be Prime Minister?

How relevant are a politician’s looks to their electoral success?

Like most politicians, Ed Miliband hasn’t quite managed the perfect press image. From Twitter typos to alleged fratricide, he has an astonishing range of apparent drawbacks. However, one of the weirdest accusations thrown at him is that he’s too ugly to be Prime Minister.

The statement, stemming from a misjudged segment of a question from Radio 4’s Today, was met with a flurry of disbelief (although, it should be noted, not enough disbelief to prevent The Sunday Times getting YouGov to run a poll on the very question). And it’s no wonder that it was – the very idea that someone’s looks could affect whether we think they should run the country should strike us as bizarre. We want our leaders to be intelligent, competent and caring – features entirely unrelated to aesthetic perfection. Or are they? Loud as the disbelief is, it is an interesting question from a psychological perspective: do a potential Prime Minister’s looks affect their electoral pulling power?

Our judgement is often influenced by seemingly unrelated things. We associate weight with importance, leading to odd situations such as people thinking a foreign currency is more valuable when they’re holding a heavier clipboard. Even the way a question is framed has an influence – a business that is said to have had a 20% chance of not knowing its adverts were misleading tends to be judged less harshly that a business that had an 80% chance of knowing. It shouldn’t be surprising therefore that the idea that an attractive person might be perceived as better in unrelated aspects of their life isn’t a recent one. Edward Thorndike, a pioneer of Behaviourism, first published research on what’s known as the Halo Effect as far back as 1920.

The Halo Effect is a cognitive bias in which a person (or object, or group) with one good quality is assumed to have other good qualities. For example, we might presume that a friendly person is also an interesting person, that someone who can play the guitar well also has insightful opinions, or that someone who can kick a ball so well that they get paid millions for it is really knowledgeable about enthusiastically named razors.

Much research related to the Halo Effect has revolved around physical attractiveness. The idea that pretty people are perceived as ‘better’ than their less pretty peers really kicked off in the 1970s when some research based around Thorndike’s ideas was published by Dion, Berscheid and Walster in an article titled “What is Beautiful is Good”. The findings of their research and many other studies since are consistent: beautiful people are more likely to be rated as having more positive traits than less attractive people. This leads to attractive people being judged as more successful, more socially skilled and more interesting for doing nothing different than their less attractive peers. Unsurprisingly, this does have practical implications – for example professors who are more attractive than their colleagues are evaluated as better lecturers by their students.

Although it should be noted before we go further that positive effects from beauty don’t apply in every situation. If physical attractiveness plays into a negative stereotype then that person will be judged more harshly than an unattractive person. For example, it’s known that a mock jury will recommend a longer sentence for an unattractive person compared to an attractive person – unless the crime was related to the attractiveness of the defendant. If the defendant could have used their looks to aid them in their crime – as a con artist, for instance – the mock jury would recommend a longer sentence for an attractive person. There’s also thought to be a jealousy effect where people describe very attractive people of the same gender as having less desirable traits (and, at a risk of perpetrating cruel stereotypes, this does seem to be more prevalent among women).

Returning to politics, it isn’t merely speculation that the Halo Effect is relevant here too – it has been demonstrated to apply specifically to politicians in a variety of cases. For instance, digitally altering photos of famous politicians can increase ratings of their honesty and attractiveness – or make them seem cunning and less powerful – depending on how attractive they’re made to look. The effect has also been show to apply in case studies of real elections.

Although perhaps it’s a little unfair to only take physical attractiveness into account, especially given that there are many other stereotypes associated with physical appearance. The YouGov poll that asked if Ed Miliband was too ugly (only one in ten people thought so) also asked if Mr Miliband looked and sounded like a Prime Minister. The results for this were more worrying for him – a full 70% thought he didn’t.

It’s wise to be sceptical about the results of any survey. However, it does raise the question: what exactly does a Prime Minister look like, and does it matter if a political leader doesn’t look like one?

One way of looking at this is checking how competent politicians look. Alexander Todorov and his colleagues did exactly this for winner/runner-up pairs who ran for the US Senate. Disturbingly, those judged as more competent looking were the winners 70% of the time.

Before the 2010 general election, Richard Wiseman, Rob Jenkins and Tony McCarthy conducted a similar study on wannabe MPs in the UK. Using photos of candidates from 59 marginal seats, they asked 200 individuals to rate how competent each politician looked. They then used the data to predict the entire election result, as well as which of the candidates would win their seat.

Thankfully, the results weren’t too promising – they only predicted 27 of the 59 candidates correctly, and the overall election prediction was no better than a regular opinion poll. This could result from the less image-centric politics in the UK: US elections tend to have more emphasis on individual candidates, while many voters in the UK wouldn’t even recognise theirs!

This doesn’t allow any escape for party leaders, however. Election campaigns are becoming increasingly centred around the image of party leaders, and people are certainly aware of what they look like. Research suggests that people can correct for the attractiveness bias, however. Hart, Ottati and Krumdick have suggested that it’s a case of ‘cognitive capacity’ – whether those doing the judging have free processing power available to allow themselves to correct for it.

The conditions required for this are twofold: first, greater political knowledge means that a person can correct for overly-positive judgements of attractive candidates, while novices show the usual pattern. It should be noted that correction is imperfect: in fact, political experts actually tended to over-correct and preferred the less attractive candidate. Second, avoiding distractions is also important. Both experts and novices like attractive candidates better when doing something else as well as the evaluating.

How Miliband should go about educating and enthralling the general population to ensure a fair evaluation is unclear though, assuming he’d even want to. Like it or not, the ‘too ugly to be Prime Minister’ comments aren’t going anywhere soon.

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