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Do we elect politicians based on appearance?

The Halo Effect (which is really Availability Bias) in action.

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 the appearances of politicians do indeed strongly influence voters — and that people around the world have similar ideas about what a good politician looks like. While few political observers would be surprised to learn that good looks earn votes, 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,” acknowledges Gabriel Lenz, an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at MIT, and a co-author of the study.

To test this idea, though, Lenz and his colleagues showed voters in the United States and India pairs of candidate photos from real election matchups in Brazil and 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 the public attribution of good looks to a candidate is a leading 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.”

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