I feel I have to respond to this item that people keep pointing me to:
John Antonakis and Olaf Dalgas presented photos of pairs of competing candidates in the 2002 French parliamentary elections to hundreds of Swiss undergrads, who had no idea who the politicians were. The students were asked to indicate which candidate in each pair was the most competent, and for about 70 per cent of the pairs, the candidate rated as looking most competent was the candidate who had actually won the election. The startling implication is that the real-life voters must also have based their choice of candidate on looks, at least in part. [emphasis added]
This came up a couple of years ago, when, in response to a similar study, I wrote:
It’s a funny result: at first it seems impressive–70% accuracy!–but then again it’s not so impressive given that you can predict something on the order of 90% of races just based on incumbency and the partisan preferences of the voters in the states and districts [at least in the U.S.; I don't know about France]. If 90% of the races are essentially decided a year ahead of time, what does it mean to say that voters are choosing 70% correct based on the candidates’ looks.
I can’t be sure what’s happening here, but one possibility is that the more serious candidates (the ones we know are going to win anyway) are more attractive. Maybe you have some goofy-looking people who decide to run in districts where they don’t have a chance, whereas the politicians who really have a shot at being in congress take the time to get their hair cut, etc.
Anyway, the point of this note is just that some skepticism is in order. It’s fun to find some scientific finding that seems to show the shallowness of voters, but watch out! I guess it pleases the cognitive scientists to think that something as important and seemingly complicated as voting is just some simple first-impression process. Just as, at the next level, it pleases biologists to think that something as important and seemingly complicated as psychology is just some simple selfish-gene thing.
And see here for a discussion of some research by Atkinson, Enos, and HIll on this topic.
Just one more thing
From the news article:
“These findings suggest that voters are not appropriately weighting performance-based information on political candidates when undertaking one of democracy’s most important civic duties,” the researchers said.
No, no, no. Unless you want to take a very weak interpretation of “suggest.” Or, to put it another way, sure, I have no doubt that “voters are not appropriately weighting performance-based information on political candidates”–but I don’t see the personal appearance study as
relevant to even close to definitive on this point.
I’m as cynical as the next guy, but this sort of thing is going a step too far, even for me.