When it comes to politics, this is how shallow you are

We like to blame politicians but the truth is, the way we go about picking our leaders is just as screwed up and disappointing. We all know “appearances matter” but oh-do-they-ever:

We showed 10-second silent video clips of unfamiliar gubernatorial debates to a group of experimental participants and asked them to predict the election outcomes. The participants’ predictions explain more than 20% of the variation in the actual two-party vote share across the 58 elections in our study, and their importance survives a range of controls, including state fixed effects. In a horse race of alternative forecasting models, participants’ forecasts significantly outperform economic variables in predicting vote shares and are comparable in predictive power to a measure of incumbency status. Participants’ forecasts seem to rest on judgments of candidates’ personal attributes (such as likability) rather than inferences about candidates’ policy positions. Though conclusive causal inference is not possible in our context, our findings may be seen as suggestive evidence of a causal effect of candidate appeal on election outcomes.

Source: “Thin-Slice Forecasts of Gubernatorial Elections” from “The Review of Economics and Statistics”

Okay, how a person carries himself is important, right? Is that so bad? Well, it seems facial appearance alone can be enough to predict elections:

Human groups are unusual among primates in that our leaders are often democratically selected. Faces affect hiring decisions and could influence voting behavior. Here, we show that facial appearance has important effects on choice of leader. We show that differences in facial shape alone between candidates can predict who wins or loses in an election (Study 1) and that changing context from war time to peace time can affect which face receives the most votes (Study 2). Our studies highlight the role of face shape in voting behavior and the role of personal attributions in face perception. We also show that there may be no general characteristics of faces that can win votes, demonstrating that face traits and information about the environment interact in choice of leader.

Source: “Facial appearance affects voting decisions” from the journal “Evolution and Human Behavior”

Well, um, uhhhhh, an authoratative face has an important impact, right? Sorry, just being PRETTY is a huge part of it:

We study the role of beauty in politics using candidate photos that figured prominently in electoral campaigns. Our investigation is based on visual assessments of 1929 Finnish political candidates from 10,011 respondents (of which 3708 were Finnish). As Finland has a proportional electoral system, we are able to compare the electoral success of non-incumbent candidates representing the same party. An increase in our measure of beauty by one standard deviation is associated with an increase of 20% in the number of votes for the average non-incumbent parliamentary candidate. The relationship is unaffected by including education and occupation as control variables and withstands several other robustness checks.

Source: “The looks of a winner: Beauty and electoral success” from “Journal of Public Economics”

And apparently short people don’t make very good leaders in the mind of the public:

Previous research has found that an electoral candidates’ eight is correlated with their image. Many studies have found that height is a great asset for a candidate as height correlates with electoral outcome. In this research the previously obtained results were partially confirmed – in the first study the supporters of a given candidate estimated him as taller than his opponents (confirmed by six out of 10 candidates). The second study, conducted during the presidential elections in Poland, showed that electorate-perceived height of candidates for the Presidency changed after the first phase of elections (confirmed by three from six main candidates). These changes in electoral-perceived height depended more upon their electoral support than attitudes toward them. Copyright © 2009 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

Source: “Politicians’ estimated height as an indicator of their popularity” from “European Journal of Social Psychology”

Is there any way to avoid the shallowness of the public? Reliable access to information is a good start. Even in an area with high endemic corruption it can make a big difference:

This paper uses publicly released audit reports to study the effects of disclosing information about corruption practices on electoral accountability. In 2003, as part of an anticorruption program, Brazil’s federal government began to select municipalities at random to audit their expenditures of federally transferred funds. The findings of these audits were then made publicly available and disseminated to media sources. Using a data set on corruption constructed from the audit reports, we compare the electoral outcomes of municipalities audited before versus after the 2004 elections, with the same levels of reported corruption. We show that the release of the audit outcomes had a significant impact on incumbents’ electoral performance, and that these effects were more pronounced in municipalities where local radio was present to divulge the information. Our findings highlight the value of having a more informed electorate and the role played by local media in enhancing political selection.

Source: “Exposing Corrupt Politicians: The Effects of Brazil’s Publicly Released Audits on Electoral Outcomes” from “Quarterly Journal of Economics”

This is still pretty depressing. Isn’t there something about this process that can cheer us up a bit? Sure. Many economists say your vote doesn’t matter anyway. Hopefully that goes for the shallow people’s votes too.


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