In the protracted build up to a possible May poll, leaders of the main parties are fighting to set the agenda, attempting to focus the electorate’s thoughts on tax, education or the NHS. In back offices, manifestoes are being written with promises on everything from the military to the environment.
But a number of experiments suggest that the looks of the candidates are as important as what they say. Would they be better off spending their time and donors’ money on visits to plastic surgeons?
A group at Princeton asked students to assess the competence of US senate candidates that they weren’t familiar with on the basis of a one-second view of their faces. Incredibly, these short glimpses were predictive of the actual outcome of the race in two out of three cases.
They also found that when one candidate’s face was assessed as looking much more competent than his rival’s he won by a bigger margin than in cases where there was only a small difference in facial appearance. No such effect was found when the students were asked how trustworthy or likable a candidate’s mug shot seemed.
The concern that the electorate isn’t choosing their politicians for the best reasons isn’t a new one. In The Republic, Plato argued that the best qualified people for political power (philosophers, obviously) were very rarely selected. He compared leaders to sailors who knew nothing of captaining a ship, claimed that it couldn’t be taught, and gained control of the vessel by means that had nothing to do with their navigational ability or understanding of sailing.
Plato’s thoughts inspired a study to find out whether children were just as good as adults at choosing leaders based on their appearance. Researchers asked six hundred Swiss children, aged between five and thirteen, to imagine that they were going on a voyage and to choose a captain for their boat. The alternative ‘captains’ were in fact running against each other in the French parliamentary elections. The kids’ preferred skippers won the election seven times out of ten.
If the electorate are choosing politicians because they look competent, this is at least a positive aim (though a large body of research suggests that we’re not very good at assessing people’s actual abilities based on their looks). However, an Australian study asked participants to rate not the competence, but the attractiveness of candidates. An increase in beauty ratings of one standard deviation (the difference between being of average attractiveness and in the top sixth of lookers) was associated with about 2% more votes.
This might not sound much, and in the 2005 UK general election, just fifteen seats were won by less than that. But the relationship between beauty and votes was found to be linear, i.e. somebody who rates better than the top one in six, or is fighting an uglier than average opponent, could overturn a much larger majority on looks alone. A beauty swing of just 6% could have changed the results of 44 seats in the 2005 election.
In Italy, Silvio Berlusconi is notorious for stocking his cabinet with gorgeous people, and admits to having plastic surgery himself. Internationally, he was ridiculed for choosing actresses, beauty contestants and Big Brother contestants as prospective MEPs. However, with seven-and-a-half years as prime minister, in spite of scandals and court cases, he is the longest-serving leader of a G8 country.
British politicians are sometimes accused of ignoring the scientific evidence when making policy decisions. If they wish to repair this image, and gain more seats, then they should follow Berlusconi’s precedent. Parties’ HQs should only approve candidates after their photographs have had a thorough screening. I look forward to the Conservative Cuties battling the Labour Lovelies in 2015. The election campaign might not seem so drawn-out.