Thursday 21 July 2011

Show business for ugly people?

Well, maybe only for those who are only ugly on the inside. Ugly on the outside: that'll turn off voters.
A new Massachusetts Institute of Technology study found that so-called “low-information voters” — those who watch a lot of TV but who aren’t up-to-date on policy issues — are most likely vote for a candidate based on looks alone.

For every 10-point increase a candidate gets because of his or her appearance, about half of that increase comes from the voters with the least amount of political knowledge and the most time spent in front of the TV.

The study analyzed data from two surveys conducted during the 2006 midterm elections: the Cooperative Congressional Election Study, which surveyed voters on their candidate preferences and television-watching habits; and a study headed by Princeton University professor Alex Todorov, which asked participants to rate ’06 Senate and gubernatorial candidates based solely on appearance.

“People judge other people all the time when they first meet them, but once they learn more about them they update their impressions and forget their initial judgments,” said MIT associate professor Gabriel Lenz, who co-authored the study. “The problem with democracy is that we ask people to vote in all these elections where they don’t know all that much except their first impression.”
Here's the full paper.

In equilibrium if we've a thick market of potential candidates, I can't see how this generates any particular inefficiency. Sure, it gives an additional dimension over which parties need to optimize in candidate selection, but in sufficiently thick markets, the tradeoff in moving from the slightly less attractive to the slightly more attractive candidate won't be that large. The only problem is if you've got thin markets such that the quality gap on other margins is large as you move up the beauty scale. But that too should be a disequilibrium phenomenon. They've said that politics is show business for ugly people. Well, if the returns to beauty start ramping up in political markets relative to other markets, more beautiful people start selecting into politics rather than other endeavours. Hamermesh found that the beautiful select into professions where beauty is rewarded; why should this be any different?

Alternatively, suppose that one of the main outputs of politicians is preening on television. Policy is secondary. Don't we all enjoy greater consumption benefits from seeing attractive people on television than from seeing unattractive people? Marketers clearly think so; check the cast of the average sitcom or commercial.

If your expectations of policy and politicians are sufficiently low, it's harder to get worked up about how things could be worse. The losses from idiot voters choosing the most attractive candidate seem unlikely to be particularly worse than the overall losses from idiot voters full stop.

New Zealand data from 2005 suggested the most politically ignorant voters disproportionately leaned Labour. Is this confirmatory or contrary evidence?


  1. How to explain Sarah Palin's very high disapproval ratings? Or is this a triumph of media over pulchritude?


  2. Attractiveness helps, all else equal, on average. Probably too much to expect it to explain every case. On the other hand, imagine how far she would have gotten if she had only average or worse levels of attractiveness?