Dr. Chris Olivola, University of Warwick - Appearance and Political Preference

Oct 31, 2012

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Chris Olivola of the University of Warwick reveals why a politician’s looks can often have more of an influence on voters than their stated policies.

Chris Olivola is a Newton Fellow in the Behavioural Science Group at the Warwick Business School at the University of Warwick. His research interests are in the psychology of human decision making and behavioral economics. He has conducted projects covering a variety of topics, such as the accuracy and impact of first impressions, human conceptions of randomness, the factors that influence charitable giving, and the psychology of martyrdom. He holds a Ph.D. from Princeton University.

About Dr. Olivola

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Dr. Chris Olivola - Appearance and Political Preference

With the US Presidential election on the horizon, political analysts are busy trying to figure out what makes voters tick. You might think that it will all come down to the candidates’ views and proposed policies. But surprisingly, our research suggests that voters may also be influenced by the way candidates look.

We showed participants photos of rival Republican and Democratic candidates drawn from hundreds of US Senate and gubernatorial elections. We asked them to guess which ones were the Republican candidates. We did this because the proportion of participants who guessed that a given candidate is Republican indicates how Republican-looking that person is. Many candidates, even some Democrats it turns out, look more stereotypically Republican than their rivals.

Using these data as a starting point, we wanted to see whether looking more Republican than one’s rival might predict a candidate’s electoral success. Our results showed some interesting differences between left and right-leaning states. We found that in right-leaning states, the more Republican-looking the candidates were, the larger their vote shares in the actual elections. This was true even for elections between Caucasian male candidates of similar age.

In contrast, we found no relationship between having a stereotypically Republican - or Democratic - appearance and electoral success in left-leaning states. Next, we showed the same election photos to a diverse sample of respondents and asked them to guess, based on looks only, which of the two rival candidates they would – hypothetically - vote for. We found that Republican respondents were more likely to prefer the more Republican-looking candidates, whereas Democratic respondents were not influenced by these political facial stereotypes.