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Look both ways: Could the next Prime Minister be chosen based on their appearance?

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Since becoming Prime Minister, Theresa May has made countless news headlines. Yet one belonging to a more controversial article did not refer to her role in politics at all. The Daily Mail’s ‘Never mind Brexit, who won Legs-it!’ headline, coupled with a photo of a meeting between Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon, sparked outrage throughout the country for the focus on the politicians’ appearances. However, as sexist as the headline was, numerous scientific studies have actually shown a correlation between voting and the physical attributes of a candidate.

Numerous scientific studies have actually shown a correlation between voting and the physical attributes of a candidate

Physiognomy is the art of interpreting the character of a person based on their appearance, and dates back the time of the Ancient Greeks. In 2005, Alexander Todorov carried out a study to determine the affect physiognomy had in predicting the outcome of elections, focusing on the perception of competence in a candidate. Competence as was shown to be one of the top traits that people wanted in a leader, highlighted by characteristics such as a well-groomed, professional appearance. Todorov showed the participants pairs of candidates, who were runner-ups and winners of contests for places in the House and Senate (in 2000, 2002 and 2004), to roughly a thousand participants and asked them to identify the most competent looking. The information gathered showed that by using this judgement the participants correctly predicted 68.6% of the House and 74.4% of the Senate election outcomes – a much higher percentage than chance would produce.

Advancing his work further, Todorov discovered that predictions were correctly made within 100 milliseconds of being shown the photos of the candidates, and the longer the participant had to look at the pictures, the less accurately they picked the winner. Todorov concluded that “rapid, unreflective judgments of competence from faces can affect voting decisions”, and it doesn’t seem unreasonable that people without a clear idea of who they want to vote for could be swayed by trivial factors such as appearance.

It doesn’t seem unreasonable that voters without a clear idea of who they want to vote for could be swayed by trivial factors such as appearance

John Antonakis and Olaf Dalgas extended Todorov’s study to include children’s responses to the competency of candidate’s faces. In their 2009 study they gave a group of children a computer game in which they had to choose a captain for a voyage from Troy to Ithaca. These captains had faces belonging to candidates from the 2002 French Parliamentary elections. The children correctly predicted 71% of the election results (almost matching the 72% result the adults had when shown the same faces) when asked to rate the ‘captains’ on how capable they appeared. Although these studies have focused on other countries, competence has also been linked to determining the outcome of elections in Denmark and Bulgaria, raising questions as to whether this could also occur in the UK.

In a time of such political uncertainty people should vote responsibly, and definitely base their decision on more than looks

In recent years, it seems our Prime Minister has wavered somewhat in attractiveness according to online surveys. David Cameron once came 10th in a countdown of the most attractive world leaders of 2015, in contrast to Theresa May who was 49th in a list of the hottest heads of state, putting her below Vladimir Putin but above Angela Merkel. Although it may not be the most attractive candidate that gives the best impression and instead the one that gives the most professional, reliable exterior, the real question is whether looks could determine the outcome of the snap election on June 8th. Science suggests that appearance may win the more competent-faced candidate a few more votes, but in a time of such political uncertainty people should vote responsibly, and definitely base their decision on more than looks.

 

 

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