Beauty & Politics: Why Sarah Palin Might Have A Natural Political Advantage

A study at Northwestern University in Illinois (is this a coincidence?) shows that there are consistent trends in people's reliance on "cognitive short-cuts" to help them select a political candidate running for office. It is not the best man or woman who wins their votes necessarily (we didn't know that yet) but the better-looking one, a tendency especially apparent in the cases of women running for office when not too many other female colleagues are competing.

Apparently, we tend to choose a candidate, say for the presidency, as we would a mate with a view to biological reproduction, except for an air of competence that has to be there. A scary thought for Halloween no doubt, but yes, we would tend to be visual animals responding to sexual cues, in courtship as in politics even when we make the effort to go vote after having read and dissected the news. And then it's all about the survival of the prettiest anyway!

"Everyone had to seem competent to get a vote. But while men needed to appear approachable to get an edge, women had to be good-looking, the researchers found...

Studies have shown that this effect tends to go away when more women run for high office -- as has happened in India for example, Chiao said.

"Voters may be able to learn to reduce their reliance on these cognitive short-cuts," she said.

Although Chiao's team only used photographs to ask about the hypothetical voting situation, they found that their "election" mirrored the real 2006 results.

"Candidates who were more likely to get votes in this experiment were more likely to get votes in the real election," Chiao said.

Perhaps once people get into the voting booth, they rely on their guts more than any careful thinking, she said.

"Contrary to the notion that people use deliberate, rational strategies when deciding whom to vote for in major political elections, research indicates that people use shallow decision heuristics, such as impressions of competence solely from a candidate's facial appearance, when deciding whom to vote for," the researchers wrote.

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