” … We have a conception of good looks and, in all probability, we want our elected politicians to look good”
Q: Looking at the Election debate on telly last week, I got to wondering: who looks the most likely leader here? Do we judge people’s capabilities on such cosmetic features as their looks? I know this is totally superficial; that’s what made me think of you. Your arguments are usually pretty superficial. Do you think it’s possible that the way people look could influence the way we vote in the Election?
A: We’re likely to be influenced by a candidate’s looks as we are the more substantial features, such as taxation, public spending, immigration controls and foreign policy. Looks do make a difference. Not just in politics either: whether you’re applying for a job or asking someone out, looks do matter. We might attach too much importance to good looks, but it’s a fact of life: if you have them, it’s a start in life. Physical attractiveness is an advantage.
Q: That’s a terrible indictment of today’s culture. It means that poor old Ed Miliband and Ed Balls (above, top) who have often been likened to Wallace and Gromit (above, bottom … sorry, I mean the other way around), are starting from an immediate disadvantage. Do you have any research to back this up? A: Actually, I do. For a start, over ten years ago America’s NBC television recruited Dr. Gordon Patzer to assist in a minor experiment in which they got a couple of super-good-looking models to drop a file of papers in the street, just to see how quickly people rushed to their assistance. Then they got an NBC colleague (who we assume was plain looking) to do the same. “That was a classic example of everything we find in the scholarly research that we do,” said Patzer. “Those of higher physical attractiveness are automatically or immediately assisted, provided help.”
Q: Wait a minute. That’s just getting help in the street. Is that all you’ve got? A: Patzer’s research goes wider: he reckons we actually trust people who are good looking. Trust is a powerful acceptance of a person: it means we take what they say as truth, without evidence or the need for further investigation; it means we believe firmly in someone. Patzer concluded: “We trust more those people of higher physical attractiveness.” He went on: “This is something anthropologically that has existed for as long as history exists.” Even justice is not blind to beauty. Studies have shown that juries find arguments more persuasive if they’re made by attractive lawyers.
Q: Presumably, this would mean that better looking people have an edge when it comes to getting a job. A: There was some research published in 2009 on this subject. People with facial disfigurement, birthmarks or scars are more likely to receive poor ratings in job interviews than people who do not have any noticeable facial marks. Professor Mikki Hebl who conducted the study explained: “Our research shows if you recall less information about competent candidates because you are distracted by characteristics on their face, it decreases your overall evaluations of them.” So flawless skin and an absence of prominent features will put you in good shape for a job.
Q: This is all very depressing. It suggests we have become a superficial society. Surely, an important political election is different. A: I wrote a blog a few of weeks back in which I referred to the impact of John F. Kennedy, an impressively handsome man, who was the first politician to use television to his advantage. Now, this didn’t mean that every successful politician since JFK had to look like George Clooney or Angelina Jolie (below), both of whom are politically engaged, by the way. But it does mean that candidates who have faces that are liable to distract voters with particular characteristics, are at a disadvantage. Researchers at Princeton University found that voters never admit they are influenced by faces, but produced evidence to show that, in fact they were. The lesson here is that we don’t even realize how we are influenced by looks.
Q: I’d like to think that, as we approach the Election, voters will use intelligence, analysis and an understanding of policy implications when they weigh up their options. In the cold light of day, they will, won’t they?
A: These are all factors, but, at a more basic level, perhaps at a level below our consciousness, we will be influenced by how the politicians look. We live in a culture that places a high priority on the way people look. What counts as good looks and ugliness are culturally specific, of course; beauty, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder. In this place and in this time, whether we like it or not, we have a conception of good looks and, in all probability, we want our elected politicians to look good. All politicians are aware of this, which is why they pay attention to their dress, their hair and to how they will appear on the tv screen. They all know that their looks play a part in their ultimate success or failure. Let me return to your original question: looks will play a part in the Election.