Why beauty pays in politics

Since 187cm George Washington took office in 1789, Americans have almost always had a president who is taller than average.

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In the past thirty US presidential races, the shorter candidate won on eight occasions, while the taller candidate won on twenty occasions (in two cases, the candidates were the same height). On average, winners were 2.5 centimetres taller than losers.

But while height may matter in a US presidential race (where voters have plenty of opportunity to observe the candidates), it’s possible that other dimensions of beauty matter more in regular elections. In Australia’s political system, many voters will never meet the candidates. However, all of them will have the chance to see a photo of the candidate on how-to-vote cards.

Candidates pay attention to the quality of their campaign photographs. Julia Gillard tells the story of campaigning outside a shopping centre, standing next to a poster displaying her name and photograph:  “This old guy comes out of the supermarket, looks at the photo, looks at me, looks at the photo, then turns back to me and says, ‘Taken on a good day, was it, love?’ I said, ‘And you’d be bloody Robert Redford, would you, mate?”

To test whether beauty affects election outcomes, ANU academic Amy King and I obtained the photographs used on the how-to-vote cards of all major party candidates in the 2004 federal election. We employed independent ‘beauty raters’, and asked each of them to rate candidates’ beauty on a scale from 1 (least beautiful) to 10 (most beautiful). We used two teams of raters – an Australian team and an American team. The Australians were more representative of the electorate, but might have recognised some of the candidates. The Americans were less representative, but had the advantage that none of them recognised a single Australian politician.

It turns out that it doesn’t matter who does the rating, because most people have the same notions of beauty. People tend to be rated as more beautiful if they smile, and if their faces are more symmetrical. Most of us regard strong features on men as more handsome, and fine features on women as more attractive. Beauty is not in the eye of the beholder.

A two-month-old baby will stare longer at an attractive person than an unattractive person. 

On average, beauty turned out to be an extremely strong predictor of how many votes a candidate received. Suppose that we compare a candidate of average beauty with a candidate in the top 15%, a member of the ‘beauty elite’. The more beautiful candidate can expect to win an additional 1 to 2 percentage points of the vote than the average-looking candidate.

Since one in ten electoral races are decided by a margin this small, this makes beauty politically important. Fully one-tenth of Australian electoral results could be changed by the choice of a particularly beautiful (or particularly unattractive) candidate.

Around the same time Amy King and I carried out our study, two other teams were investigating the same issue. It turns out that in both German and Finnish elections, better-looking candidates win more votes. Finnish voters are more likely to be swayed by beauty than Australian voters, while German voters are less influenced by looks. 

Yet one curious finding stands out: in those countries, beauty has a larger effect on female candidates, while in Australia, beauty has a larger effect on male candidates. 

One reason might be an Australian stereotype that causes some people to regard attractive women as less competent. ‘Dumb blonde’ jokes are more likely to be directed at women than at men.

But for both male and female candidates, overall, good looks are rewarded at the ballot box.

The effect of beauty in politics mirrors results in other fields. In the Australian labour market, Melbourne University’s Jeff Borland and I have shown that men rated ‘above average’ for attractiveness had household incomes that were 15% higher, while those rated ‘below average’ had household incomes 25% lower.

In fact, not only do beautiful people earn more, they are also more effective in collecting charitable donations and perform better on television game shows. In the courtroom, beautiful defendants are more likely to be acquitted, while uglier people are more likely to be judged criminals.

There is also some evidence that unattractive people tend to choose occupations where they can be judged primarily on their writings. Many Nobel-winning economists tend to be short in stature. Indeed, the economists who shaped mid-twentieth-century Australian economic policy were known as ‘the seven dwarfs’.

When asked whether our results on beauty in politics could really be believed, given the number of less-than-gorgeous individuals in the Australian House of Representatives, I’ve answered honestly: ‘you should have seen the ones who missed out.’

Andrew Leigh is Labor MP for the Federal seat of Fraser. This is an edited extract from The Luck of Politics, published by Black Inc this week.