Will the bonniest Scot win?

Ahead of the Scottish vote on independence, Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling have been slugging it out on TV again.  In the coming weeks, their respective views on the North Sea oil, keeping the pound and nuclear submarines will be fought over in pubs, offices and newspaper columns. 

But research suggests that the looks of politicians are as important in winning voters as what they argue for.  Could Salmond’s paunch be as important as his policies?

In one experiment, researchers 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.  Impressively, these short glimpses predicted the election in two-out-of-three cases.

In the Scottish election, sixteen year-olds are being given the vote.  But in another experiment, researchers found that much younger children were just as good at selecting politicians on their appearance.

They 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.  You might wonder whether the children were unusually astute: figuring, say, that a reduction in taxes would mean increased pocket money and less school.  But all they had to go on were the politicians’ faces.

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 like much but as the polls draw closer, those votes are well worth having.

So, if Salmond really wants to hear the bagpipes play on an independent Scotland, he might be better saving his breath not for debate but for getting trim in the gym.  He doesn’t need the rhetoric of Braveheart so much as Mel Gibson’s (Australian) good looks.

References in Unthink.