Beauty and the Political Beasts

Australian economists Amy King and Andrew Leigh have an interesting article showing that the perceived beauty of candidates has a major impact on electoral success [HT: Prawfsblawg]. By their analysis of data from Australian parliamentary elections, one standard deviation of candidate “beauty” (the difference between a candidate at the 84th percentile of attractiveness relative to other candidates and one at the 50th) increases a candidate’s percentage of the vote by 1.5 to 2 percent. This is a major effect, since about 10% of Australian legislators won their seats by less than that margin, during the period studied. Moreover, this data probably understates the true impact of physical attractiveness, because it looks only at the relative success of those politicians who get major party nominations; obviously, however, the parties themselves are aware of the importance of looks and thus will try to nominate good-looking candidates, thereby excluding some unattractive but potentially more competent alternatives.

Physical attractiveness influences electoral outcomes in the US as well as Australia. As the Prawfsblawg post linked above points out, taller candidates seem to have an edge in American presidential elections. A 2005 National Bureau of Economic Research study found that the relative physical attractiveness of rival candidates has a big impact on the vote to determine the president of the American Economics Association.

I. Physical Attractiveness and Rational Political Ignorance.

The impact of physical attractiveness on electoral success is another effect of voter ignorance and irrationality. Because individual votes have so little chance of actually affecting electoral outcomes, voters have little incentive either to acquire political knowledge (“rational ignorance”) or to do a good job of evaluating the information they have (“rational irrationality”). If voters know little about politics and public policy, they may rely on extremely limited information to make their decisions, including information about a candidate’s looks. King and Leigh predictably find that candidate looks had a bigger impact in constituencies with a higher percentage of “apathetic” voters, a trait that probably correlates with political ignorance. Irrationality, however, plays a role as well. Even if you know little about politics, voting on the basis of looks is still poor decision-making. After all, there is no reason to believe that physical attractiveness predicts better performance in office.

II. Is Candidate Attractiveness a Useful Information Shortcut for Voters?

Defenders of voter competence might argue that physical attractiveness is a good “information shortcut” that improves voter decisions. For example, people who work harder at improving their appearance may be more conscientious workers in general, and therefore better legislators. However, I doubt that this is a major factor within the set of people who are already dedicated and conscientious enough to have won a major party nomination for high political office. Moreover, much of a person’s attractiveness or lack thereof is determined by genetic causes outside of their control. Physical attractiveness might also improve job performance because attractive leaders might improve a nation’s public image. This might be an argument for electing physically attractive heads of state. But foreign public opinion almost never pays much attention to the appearance of other nations’ rank and file legislators. Indeed, most such legislators are little-known outside their districts even in their own countries.

Finally, one could cite data showing that physical appearance improves job prospects even in the private sector, where decision-making is likely to be more rational because consumers and employers don’t suffer from rational ignorance and rational irrationality. There is, however, a difference between private sector hiring for beauty and voting. In the private sector case, employee beauty is a valuable consumption good for employers and co-workers who have to look at the person in question every day. Many people would prefer to look at more attractive people than less attractive ones, just as we prefer to look at attractive rather than ugly office furniture. Thus, employers who discriminate against the ugly and in favor of the beautiful are rationally promoting their self-interest in two ways: they derive personal aesthetic pleasure and also make the office more appealing to other workers. By contrast, few voters spend much time looking at their legislative representatives, with the exception of a few especially avid C-Span watchers.

Ultimately, it may be rational for voters to give a very slight preference to physically attractive candidates – but not one as large as that found by King and Leigh. Overvaluing of candidates’ physical attractiveness is far from the worst harm caused by political ignorance. But it is another addition to a long and growing list.

UPDATE: Leigh is the author of another important recent study of voter ignorance and irrationality, where he shows that voters tend to reward and punish governments for world economic conditions they have no control over, while often ignoring economic outcomes over which they have more leverage.

UPDATE #2: I should point out that the impact of attractiveness may be greater in Australian legislative elections than in American House races because, as King and Leigh note, Australian voters each receive a “How to Vote” card with pictures of the rival candidates when they go to the polls. By contrast, many American voters probably don’t know what candidates look like, and therefore can’t be influenced by their appearance. The effects are probably greater with respect to Senate, gubernatorial, and presidential elections, where candidates tend to be better known.