We judge our leaders on how they look, not on how they perform

Imagine if the leaders of the free world were chosen not based on their actual competence but on how competent they look. Such a scenario could be worryingly close to the truth.

John Antonakis and Olaf Dalgas presented photos of pairs of competing candidates in the 2002 French parliamentary elections to hundreds of Swiss undergrads, who had no idea who the politicians were. The students were asked to indicate which candidate in each pair was the most competent, and for about 70 per cent of the pairs, the candidate rated as looking most competent was the candidate who had actually won the election. The startling implication is that the real-life voters must also have based their choice of candidate on looks, at least in part.

Moreover, a second experiment asked children aged 5 to 13 years to make the same choice, but in the context of a game in which they needed to select who they would like to captain their ship sailing from Troy to Ithaca. They tended to select for captain those candidates rated earlier as most competent by the undergrads, and again the children's choices tended to retrospectively predict which candidates went on to be victorious in the real election.

For the pair of candidates shown above, 77 per cent children who rated this pair, and 67 per cent of adults, chose Laurent Henart, on the right (the real-life winning candidate), rather than Jean-Jacques Denis on the left.

"These findings suggest that voters are not appropriately weighting performance-based information on political candidates when undertaking one of democracy's most important civic duties," the researchers said.

One possibility is that people's looks do actually correlate with their competence and it's that association that the participants in this study were tapping into. However, Antonakis and Dalgas note that past research shows there is no link between competence and appearance, at least not in terms of IQ.

Link to related Digest posts, and see here.
Link to Science podcast with study author.
Image copyright: Science/AAAS

ResearchBlogging.orgJ. Antonakis, O. Dalgas (2009). Predicting Elections: Child's Play. Science, 323. In Press.
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