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0April 15, 2010Gordon Brown– hot or not? Physical appearance and election outcomes

Posted Apr 15 2010 12:00am

As David Cameron, Gordon Brown, and other candidates prepare for the UK general elections, voters must decide whom to support. Although political ideology is (hopefully) a major influence on voting habits, a number of other factors about the candidates may sway voters as well. For example, many election observers have noted the seeming link between  candidate height and election outcome – with taller candidates winning more. The BBC recently reported on how lately UK candidates have been  emphasizing their exercise routine and physical fitness to the public; perhaps hoping that physical fitness translates into a perception of leadership fitness for voters. Or, candidates may be hoping to boost their perceived attractiveness (since perceived attractiveness has been linked the perception of other positive trait attributes) by spending a few extra hours in the gym.

Much research on first impressions has reiterated the importance of physical features in influencing judgments about a number of traits, including competence– which is strongly linked to voter support. Research  altering the images of famous US presidents showed that subtle changes to their faces could greatly change perceptions of them.  Recent  research in Political Psychology tried to examine more specifically the ways that first impressions (non-verbal at least) might influence social judgments other than competence and how those judgments may influence actual election outcomes. Just as previous research has suggested, judgments of competence were highly positively correlated with winning in a real election. However, somewhat surprisingly, when paired with judgments of incompetence, judgments of physical attraction were actually correlated with a lesser chance of winning an election than judgement of incompetence alone. In other words, if a first impression of incompetence is made, being seen as physically attractive actually makes your chance of winning even worse. So, according to this research if candidates are hoping to boost their physical appeal in order to sway voters, maybe they ought to make sure they are being seen as relatively competent first.

Read More:

Mattes et al. (2010). Predicting Election Outcomes from Positive and Negative Trait Assessments of Candidate Images, Political Psychology, 31, 1 .

BBC– The election fitness trail – exercising power or PR?

Keating et al. (2002). Presidential Physiognomies: Altered Images, Altered Perceptions. Political Psychology, 20, 3.

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