The Situationist

Archive for October 11th, 2012

Dr. Ryan Enos at HLS on the Role of Trivial Things on Elections

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 11, 2012

Today, October 4th
12 pm, Austin North
Dr. Ryan Enos (Harvard Government)
“Mitt Romney is Really, Really Good Looking: Do Attractiveness and Other Trivial Things Affect Elections?”
Free Chinese food!

Cognitive and social psychology have evidence that physical appearance can powerfully shape human behavior through “thin slice” judgments. Advances in measurement allow us to measure the appearance of individual politicians. Evidence consistently shows that good-looking politicians tend to win elections. But do voters really cast votes for politicians based on good looks? Dr. Enos evaluates the evidence and explains the possible role for these heuristic evaluations in voting.

Here is an excerpt from a related blog post (The Monkey Cage) by Enos and his work with co-authors:

Mitt Romney is better looking than almost everyone reading this blog.  Back in 2008, I wrote about how Sarah Palin’s looks put her in the 95th percentile of politicians.  Romney has even Palin beat—he scores above the 99th percentile.

These results come from a study with my colleagues Matthew Atkinson and Seth Hill, in which we developed a method for obtaining the ratings of the facial competence of governor and Senate candidates from 1994 to 2006 by showing the images of these candidates to undergraduate students for 1 second, as pioneered by Alex Todorov.  In 2007, when we collected this data, we removed highly-recognizable candidates so that opinions about the candidates, other than their appearance, would not affect the ratings.  However, as with Palin, we are fortunate that Romney was a relative unknown at the time (at least to the undergraduates in California that we used), so we obtained a rating of his face.

And what a face it is!  We gathered the ratings of 728 candidates for Senate and Governors’ seats and Romney outscored all but four of them.  The only persons to win election that beat him are Russ Feingold (the best looking Democrat) and John Thune (the best looking overall).  Romney also appears to far outdo Paul Ryan, who came in in the 67th percentile of the 2004 House candidates (although the photos did not include abs).  (Also, that study only included white male candidates and the House was not measured on a common scale with Senators and Governors, but I’d feel pretty confident saying the 67th percentile of the House puts you well behind Romney).

We don’t have a rating of Obama because we deemed him too well-known, even in 2007, because his Senate race had attracted a lot of attention and there was already an excitement building around a possible White House bid.  However, we do have a score for Biden—and Romney has him beat badly.  Biden only comes in the 62nd percentile of Senate and governor candidates.

So, if the election were decided on looks, it would be no contest.  Fortunately for Obama and Biden, the election is not decided by looks.  As we point out in our paper associated with the study, most of the correlation between candidate appearance and election outcomes is probably spurious.  Very few voters are willing to cast their ballot for a candidate based on looks – we estimate that if a candidate moves from the 25th to the 75th percentile in attractiveness, this is likely to gain that candidate about 3.5 percentage points in vote among independent voters, which was not enough to decide the winner of even a single Senate race out of 99 that we examined.  Rather than good looks directly affecting voters’ decisions, it is likely that good looking people like Romney have a lot of success in life, obtain significant human capital—education, career success, education—and because of all they have to lose, they are strategic about which races they enter.

In a certain respect, Romney’s career both fits and is counter to this explanation, because he ran for Senate in 1994, against Ted Kennedy when he did not have a good chance of winning, but he did not run for Governor until 2002 where he used his good looks and the considerable capital he had earned from the Salt Lake City Olympics to run in a seat with no incumbent.  Of course, Romney may not have been able to be as strategic about when to run for President – and unfortunately for him, most voters seem to have made up their mind long ago—nevertheless, if a candidate’s appearance every can make a difference, it should make a difference for Mitt Romney and his face in the 99th percentile.

Related Situationist posts:

More posts on the situation of politics here.

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