We judge our leaders on how they look, not on how they perform

Imagine if the leaders of the free world were chosen not based on their actual competence but on how competent they look. Such a scenario could be worryingly close to the truth.

John Antonakis and Olaf Dalgas presented photos of pairs of competing candidates in the 2002 French parliamentary elections to hundreds of Swiss undergrads, who had no idea who the politicians were. The students were asked to indicate which candidate in each pair was the most competent, and for about 70 per cent of the pairs, the candidate rated as looking most competent was the candidate who had actually won the election. The startling implication is that the real-life voters must also have based their choice of candidate on looks, at least in part.

Moreover, a second experiment asked children aged 5 to 13 years to make the same choice, but in the context of a game in which they needed to select who they would like to captain their ship sailing from Troy to Ithaca. They tended to select for captain those candidates rated earlier as most competent by the undergrads, and again the children’s choices tended to retrospectively predict which candidates went on to be victorious in the real election.

For the pair of candidates shown above, 77 per cent children who rated this pair, and 67 per cent of adults, chose Laurent Henart, on the right (the real-life winning candidate), rather than Jean-Jacques Denis on the left.

“These findings suggest that voters are not appropriately weighting performance-based information on political candidates when undertaking one of democracy’s most important civic duties,” the researchers said.

One possibility is that people’s looks do actually correlate with their competence and it’s that association that the participants in this study were tapping into. However, Antonakis and Dalgas note that past research shows there is no link between competence and appearance, at least not in terms of IQ.

Link to related Digest posts, and see here.
Link to Science podcast with study author.
Image copyright: Science/AAAS

ResearchBlogging.orgJ. Antonakis, O. Dalgas (2009). Predicting Elections: Child’s Play. Science, 323. In Press.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

6 thoughts on “We judge our leaders on how they look, not on how they perform”

  1. Another crazy hypothesis is that there are underlying factors that determine all of these traits.Jonathan Haidt found that political views (liberal vs. conservative) are strongly correlated with morality, and it has before been argued that they have a heritable component.Perhaps there is an underlying trait that governs not only political view, but also influences looks in a pleiotropic way?


  2. And then there is Efran and Patterson’s 1976 study of Canada elections that I write about in my newest book. They found that attractive candidates received more than 2.5 times as many votes, despite the fact that 73% of voters said that attractiveness did not influence their vote.


  3. I haven’t read the paper but I’m curious as to how the authors justify their following inference from their results:“These findings suggest that voters are not appropriately weighting performance-based information”I don’t believe this conclusion follows from the study findings (based on the information presented above by the Digest). To truly test this hypothesis, one must conduct a study to demonstrate that, where people have access to performance-based information, they do not weigh it appropriately. It seems the current study asks people to make artificial choices based on no information (is this right?). Furthermore, the study seems to implicitly sell the hypothesis that judgements of competence are in fact possible from appearance. By even asking the question, it confers legitimacy on such a reasoning style.A more reasonable, cautious conclusion might be:“These findings suggest that trivial non-consequential electoral decisions of people instructed to make such decisions on the basis of appearance alone correlate with the non-trivial, consequential electoral decisions made by people who have access to performance-based information and appearance”As I say, I haven’t read the paper so perhaps they have done something interesting to demonstrate people who make non-trivial consequential decisions (without being encouraged to engage in faulty reasoning) do indeed base these decisions on seemingly trivial information.


  4. Paul Hutton: The Todorov study (published in Science) did what you suggest (exposed raters to faces and then gave them individuating information); they found that voters are anchored on facial appearance. If voters considered information beyond faces then naive raters would not be able to predict voter choices if they only saw faces. That’s the power of the Antonakis and Dalgas study. There is no confound nor any incorrect interpretation. Voters are definitely not demonstrating Bayesian updating.To Neuroskeptic: that was a funny post. We should see the mugshots of the writers! LOL. Actually Antonakis is a handsome guy (at least to me….if I was a man perhaps I could not judge well), so I guess he’s good. Well, attractiveness should not be teh important point here but competence.


  5. I think most people chose the man on the right because
    he is smiling in the picture unlike the man on the left.
    The result might be different if they used a picture of them
    both smiling, or just the man on the left smiling….


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