Attractive candidate? Looks may matter more than perceived competence for Sarah Palin and other female office seekers.

Steve Marcus/Reuters

When the Right Look Trumps the Right Stuff

Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin received a media lashing last week when word trickled out that her makeup artist snagged $22,800 in the first half of October. Pundits warned that such royal treatment might undermine her "down home" persona, but the makeover may have been a savvy move: New research adds more weight to the idea that voters value attractiveness more than competence in the faces of female politicians.

The idea that candidates can win or lose votes on the basis of looks is not new. A previous study of U.S. Senate and House of Representative elections showed that candidates whose faces were judged "more competent" than their opponents' won the elections between 66% and 74% of the time (Science, 10 June 2005, p. 1623). But that study did not consider the impact of the candidate's gender on the relative importance of appearances, says Joan Chiao, a social neuroscientist at Northwestern University in Chicago, Illinois.

Chiao and her colleagues decided to investigate the role of gender. They compiled headshots of 46 women and 60 men who in 2006 ran for seats in the House of Representatives. The photos were grayscaled to minimize the effect of hair and clothing color, and highly recognizable candidates, such as Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, were not included. A group of 73 test subjects, 38 of them women, viewed each face for 1 second and then noted how attractive, how competent, how dominant, or how approachable they found the candidates. Then, they viewed pairs of candidates from the 106-member set and had to indicate for which candidate they would vote in a hypothetical presidential election.

Male and female voters tended to like the same traits. Perceived competence predicted wins by both male and female candidates. But for female candidates, attractiveness was an even more important predictor of success. Good looks were not a significant factor for men, the researchers report this week in PLoS ONE. The biggest difference between male and female voters was in how much they valued approachability. For male candidates, perceived approachability had a significant impact on how likely female but not male voters were to cast ballots in their favor.

Chiao says the results indicate that the "halo effect," the idea that prettier people may be judged as more capable or having other positive traits, only applies to female politicians: "It reveals a gender bias and the importance of attractiveness for female candidates to succeed in elections."

Alexander Todorov, a psychologist at Princeton University, sees a darker side, especially for less attractive candidates: "It tells you a story of one potential source of bias against female politicians." But he notes that the context of an election matters too. For example, voters may be more apt to choose a candidate with the most dominant-looking face during a time of war: a pit bull with lipstick, so to speak.