Looks like a winner: Scientists demonstrate how much candidate appearances affect election outcomes

July 21, 2010, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Looks like a winner: Scientists demonstrate how much candidate appearances affect election outcomes
MIT political scientists have measured the effect that candidates' looks have on their electoral prospects.

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 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 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.”

In the study, the researchers showed voters pairs of candidates from 122 elections in Mexico and Brazil. The participants in the study were asked which candidate would be a better elected official. Respondents in India and the United States agreed with each other about 75 percent of the time when asked which candidate seemed superior; a group of respondents in the and Mexico agreed with each other about 80 percent of the time.

In turn, simply knowing which candidate the participants judged to have a superior appearance allowed the researchers to correctly predict the winner in 68 percent of Mexican elections and 75 percent of some Brazilian elections. “These are very large effects,” the authors note in the working paper, “Looking like a Winner: Candidate Appearance and Electoral Success in New Democracies,” which will be published in the journal World Politics this fall.

Lenz conducted the study along with Chappell Lawson, also an associate professor of political science at MIT, Michael Myers, a research affiliate with MIT’s Department of , and Andy Baker, a political scientist at the University of Colorado.

The paper is an “interesting and innovative study,” writes Panu Poutvaara, an economist at the University of Helsinki who also studies the influences of candidate appearances, responding to questions by e-mail. In Poutvaara’s view, by helping to confirm the general connection between good looks and ballot-box success, the study paves the way for future research that should address precisely why voters favor good-looking candidates: “Is it because voters either enjoy watching good-looking politicians on TV, or think that they are better in social interactions?”

Lenz and his colleagues are addressing this question from a slightly different angle in additional, ongoing research. In a forthcoming study, they find that “low-information voters” are especially likely to choose based on looks. “These are people who don’t know much about politics, but watch a lot of TV,” says Lenz. The researchers are currently writing a paper based on this latter project.

Explore further: To determine election outcomes, study says snap judgments are sufficient

More information: Paper: “Looking like a Winner: Candidate Appearance and Electoral Success in New Democracies”:

Related Stories

Study: Celebrity endorsements do not help political candidates

April 26, 2010

If you're running for office - and want to shore up support from young voters - you want Hollywood's support, right? Wrong. Two new studies from North Carolina State University show that young voters are not swayed by celebrity ...

Are women voters more likely to vote for female candidates?

March 31, 2008

The research, conducted by University of Wisconsin’s Kathleen Dolan, examined the National Election Study (NES) data, which provided information about voters’ reactions to female candidates and whether gender affinity ...

Recommended for you

Research helps students excel on science exams

January 15, 2019

A new study released today reveals that helping lower-income high school freshman to regulate their test-taking anxiety can cut their biology course failure rates in half. The study, published in Proceedings of the National ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

3 / 5 (2) Jul 21, 2010
Is it because voters either enjoy watching good-looking politicians on TV, or think that they are better in social interactions?
This question assumes deliberate intent.

In a low-information situation (either by choice, i.e. by being ignorant, or by the media really not supplying any real information), the voter hardly has anything else to use but the looks of the candidate.

I think the choice is initially sub-conscious, and then we rationalize that choice to ourselves.

Words such as charisma, exist for the sole purpose of quantifying the sum of details in the perceived image of a person, when we have no idea of what these details are.

One may assume that "choosing by looks" is better than a random choice, at least on the average. Also, could it be that we are born with some concept of charisma, or is it simply something we pick up later, as we see other people who are successful at what they do?

There is much here to study, and the results will definitely be interesting.
1 / 5 (1) Jul 21, 2010
If all you have to go on is looks, you don't vote. You get informed or you stay out of it. One more study confirming why democracy is a bad idea.
4.5 / 5 (2) Jul 21, 2010
H.L. Mencken said it long ago already:

"Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance."
not rated yet Jul 22, 2010
I've noticed that the better-looking of two candidates generally wins national elections, but that's not as consistent in primaries. I can't think of a presidential election during my lifetime (since '70) when the better-looking candidate didn't win.*

(*Except Ford v. Carter)

@gwrede: I don't think there's any assumption of conscious intent in the question. Voters can be subconsciously influenced by their beliefs and/or what they find enjoyable.
not rated yet Jul 29, 2010
Aha, that probably explains Sarah Palin..... Somehow I suspected that something like that might be at play - considering her constituency.
not rated yet Jul 29, 2010
H.L. Mencken said it long ago already:

"Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance."

The great Mencken strikes again :). However, as much as I agree, if not Democracy - then what else?


A lot of college graduates are woefully ignorant of (world and US) history and geography. Many US HS graduates cannot point to the United States on a map of the world. And K-12 textbooks for the US, being decided by the Texas Board of Education (who is trying to rewrite history) is not helpful.
1 / 5 (1) Aug 01, 2010
You do realize that this is by design don't you?

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.