Northwestern Study: In Elections, Looking Good Matters

This story was written by Kirsten Salyer, Daily Northwestern
Voting preferences may not be much more than skin deep, a recent Northwestern study has found.

A candidate's image matters, especially when men are judging female candidates, according to "The Political Gender Gap: Gender Bias in Facial Inferences that Predict Voting Behavior," by Joan Chiao, assistant professor of psychology at NU.

"All voters perceived competence as important," said Nicholas Bowman, a second-year Ph.D. student who assisted Chiao with the study. "But for female candidates it was also important that they were attractive."

Participants of the study, 38 female and 35 male university students, first rated 2006 congressional candidates based on perceived levels of competence, dominance, approachability and attractiveness. Then they were shown a pair of the candidates and asked to choose one of the two for president.

Overall, voters perceived male politicians as more competent and dominant and females as more attractive and approachable.

The aim of the study was to make voters aware of how they use physical appearance whether they know it or not to influence their decisions, Bowman said.

"People need to fill the void with something," he said. "They need to become familiar with the candidate and the issue or else they'll fall back on (looks)."

Bowman said he hesitated to directly apply the study's results to the current election.

"But it's not surprising that a lot is done to elevate someone's attractiveness, especially of a woman, given this bias," he said.

Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign has spent over $150,000 on vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin's wardrobe, and her makeup artist was the highest-paid individual in McCain's campaign in the first half of October, according to The New York Times.

NU students said they are not making their decisions based on looks - or at least they're not aware if they are.

Kristen Johnson, a Weinberg junior, said she thought just knowing the amount of campaign money spent on making Palin presentable does more to hurt Republicans than help.

"I don't think her wardrobe choices add to policy preferences," she said. "It just adds to her appearance as a trophy vice president."

Medill freshman Aaron Jaffe also said he would rather focus on the candidates' issues than their appearances. But a candidate's demeanor and looks can play a part in swaying public opinion, as it did in the 1960 televised debate between presidential candidates John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, he said.

"Obama looks better and in better shape than McCain," he said. "But nobody can deny that Sarah Palin looks good."

Subconscious biases might play a part, Weinberg junior Tom Ahmadifar said.

"I think there is some truth behind the question, 'Do they look presidential?'" he said.
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