Sunday, April 10, 2011

Pretty politics

My Canadian readers are no doubt preparing for the upcoming federal election. Living in a democracy, we have the opportunity to vote for the candidate we think is most competent (even if sometimes it seems like all options are pretty grim). If we choose well, we may be rewarded: there is much evidence that intelligence and competence correlate with effective performance in politics. Unfortunately, research also shows that intelligence can’t be predicted from one’s appearance. Everyone knows that. That’s why we would never choose a competent candidate solely based on what they look like. Or would we?

To evaluate how much looks factor in when choosing a political candidate, Swiss researchers asked over 600 adults to rate which of two faces (in photographs) looked most competent. Little did the participants know, the two faces were actually of two candidates in a past French parliamentary election. As it turns out, over 70% of the participants ended up picking the candidate who had won the election.

To take things a little further, the researchers then carried out a similar experiment in children. They had over 600 children ranging from five to thirteen years old play a computer game that involved a sailing trip from Troy to Ithaca (sounds familiar?). After the game, the children were shown the same two faces used in the adult experiment and were asked to choose who they would prefer to have as captain of the boat. Again, just over 70% of the children chose the election winner.

Interpreting these results can be a bit tricky, but keep in mind that we already know that competent people aren’t necessarily prettier. One thing is clear: the experiments tell us that adult and children use similar types of visual information when judging whether someone is competent or not. The researchers also conclude that voters don’t factor in enough information about the actual performance of candidates when heading to the ballots, relying instead on what candidates look like. While I’m sure they are at least partially right, I think it’s a bit of a stretch to come to this conclusion given the simplicity of the study.

In any case, the results serve as a good reminder to think about our candidates and to take our civic duties seriously. After all, we wouldn’t judge a book by its cover…

Reference: Predicting elections: child’s play! (2009) Antonakis J and Dalgas O. Science 323(27):1183.

4 Responses to “Pretty politics”

Fawn said...

Hmmm, interesting. What if the local candidate is gorgeous, but the party leader is ugly? LOL

The thing I find most difficult about our system is the having to choose between what's best for one's riding and what's best for one's country -- sometimes there is a conflict between those goals. *sigh*

Haha Fawn that sounds like quite the dilemma... And yes, the whole riding vs country thing is very hard. I go back and forth about that a lot.

Hey! Why don't you have a picture of Elizabeth May?! Has see been banned by the Scientific Chick consortium? ;)

Michael, I just knew someone was going to pick up on that, and I'm not surprised it's you. :)

I just googled imaged "harper and ignatieff" and took the first picture that seemed suitable.

Elizabeth May has most certainly not been banned by the Scientific Chick consortium. She is not present due to laziness.

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