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Intelligent Machines

Looks like a Winner

Measuring how candidate appearance affects election outcomes

When you vote in an election, your choice is surely not influenced by anything as superficial as a candidate’s looks, right?

New research from MIT political scientists shows that a politician’s appearance does indeed strongly influence voters–and that people around the world have similar ideas about what a good politician looks like. While few political observers are likely to be surprised by this conclusion, the MIT researchers have quantified a phenomenon that is more often assumed to be true than rigorously measured.

“Ever since Aristotle, people have written about the concern that charismatic leaders who speak well and look good can sway votes even if they do not share the people’s views,” says Gabriel Lenz, an associate professor of political science and a coauthor of the study.

This story is part of the November/December 2010 Issue of the MIT News Magazine
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To test this idea, Lenz and his colleagues showed voters in the United States and India pairs of candidate photos from 27 real election matchups in Brazil and 47 in Mexico. When asked which candidate would make a better elected official, the participants in the study, regardless of where they lived, largely selected the same candidates. Moreover, their choices corresponded closely to the outcomes of those Brazilian and Mexican races, meaning that public perception that a candidate looks like a good politician is an indicator of a campaign’s result.

“We were a little shocked that people in the United States and India so easily predicted the outcomes of elections in Mexico and Brazil based only on brief exposure to the candidates’ faces,” says Lenz. “These are all different cultures, with different political traditions and different histories.”

In the study, simply knowing which candidate the Indian and American participants had selected on the basis of a photograph allowed the researchers to correctly identify the winner in 68 percent of the Mexican elections and 75 percent of the Brazilian elections.

This effect may vary according to the candidate’s gender: other social scientists have found that female candidates are more likely to pass the appearance test than they are to actually win. This set of candidates, chosen because appropriate photos were available, included just six women in Mexico and 16 in Brazil. “We would like to study these issues more,” Lenz says.

Lenz conducted the study, published in the journal World Politics this fall, with Chappell Lawson, also an associate professor of political science; Michael Myers, a research affiliate with the Department of Political Science; and Andy Baker, a political scientist at the University of Colorado.

In a follow-up study, they found that “low-information voters” are especially likely to let candidates’ appearance guide their voting decisions. “These are people who don’t know much about politics but watch a lot of TV,” says Lenz.

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