Our friends at Augusta University have played a key role in helping us understand complicated issues, helping us go beyond the headlines, and with the midterm elections right now really in full swing, we wanted to touch on something that we don’t usually tackle in the political arena, and that is the way that a candidate looks, their physical appearance, and the role that it may or may not play when it comes to your decision at the ballot box. And, we’re so grateful to have with us today Dr. Mary-Kate Lizotte, she’s an associate professor of political science at Augusta University.
Brad Means: Dr. Lizotte, thanks for what you do for the students over there at AU and for being with us today.
Dr. Mary-Kate Lizotte: Thank you for having me. I really appreciate it.
Brad Means: Before we talk about the specifics of a candidate’s physical appearance, what kind of feeling do you get from your students when it comes election time? Have you ever heard them talk about, “Well, I’m gonna vote for him or her, because they’re attractive”?
Dr. Mary-Kate Lizotte: I haven’t heard that from my students, thankfully.
Brad Means: That’s good.
Dr. Mary-Kate Lizotte: I would be very disappointed if I had. But, there’s this old Sex in the City episode in which the women are talking about this political candidate one of the characters is dating, and one of the female characters actually says that she always votes for the most handsome candidate. So, I mean, it’s definitely out there.
Brad Means: Yeah.
Dr. Mary-Kate Lizotte: Thankfully, my students aren’t saying that sort of thing.
Brad Means: Right, no, we want them to come out of your class ready to look at the whole candidate inside and out. What about the research, though? What does it have to say about the physical appearance or attractiveness of a candidate?
Dr. Mary-Kate Lizotte: So, there’s a lot of research from social psychology that looks at physical appearance and how that’s perceived, and that doesn’t necessarily look at political candidates, but that research tends to show that beautiful is good for the most part. So, my colleague and I were interested to see to what extent that might be different. So, some of the research already done has shown that physical appearance does seem to matter, that people make these very quick, snap judgments about someone’s appearance, whether to not they look confident or intelligent, ready to serve, and so it does seem to matter, at least a little bit, from the research that we’ve seen thus far.
Brad Means: Well, at that point, when they’ve made that snap judgment, are they listening to what the person even says anymore?
Dr. Mary-Kate Lizotte: They aren’t. So, the research that’s been done has been really limited. It’s just looking at photos, pairings of photos of actual candidiates who are running against each other for a House of Representatives seat, and they actually found that in those snap judgments, subjects were able to pick the winner of the election, which is really fascinating.
Brad Means: Wow.
Dr. Mary-Kate Lizotte: But, that research only used white male candidates, so when the pairings were both white male candidates. So, it didn’t look at differences in terms of the gender of the candidate or the race of the candidate.
Brad Means: Well, have you ever called this to the attention of the people that are in your studies or that have been in other studies, that, “Hey, do you notice that you’re pickin’ someone based on their looks?” In other words, have you ever kind of called them out on it?
Dr. Mary-Kate Lizotte: No, I haven’t. I think that would be really, really interesting. That would be a slightly different type of research than what I do, but I think it would be fascinating. I’m pretty sure most people would challenge that and say that that’s not what they’re doing.
Brad Means: What about women versus men? Any huge differences that you’ve noticed there from people’s responses or reactions to those candidates?
Dr. Mary-Kate Lizotte: Sure. So, my research with my colleague, our study wants to look at or did look at gender differences, so we were interested to know whether or not calling attention to physical attractiveness would actually change the way that people view an attractive candidate. So, when it’s brought to mind, we hypothesize that individuals would automatically have other thoughts come to mind, like unattractive women might be seen as less intelligent, and so that’s exactly what we find. We find that female candidates who are described as attractive, as physically attractive, are evaluated by voters as being less confident and less intelligent, and voters say that they’re less likely to vote for a female candidate described as physically attractive. Interestingly, for male candidates described as physically attractive, they’re seen as less trustworthy, which I think it pretty fascinating, given some of the sex scandals that we’ve seen with political candidates, male political candidates in particular. We speculate that that’s probably what’s going on, that a physically attractive male candidate, when it’s brought to mind for voters, they start to worry about, “Will this person then engage in some sort of scandalous behavior?”
Brad Means: What do you say to your students to get past this, other than, “Hey, don’t judge– don’t just a book by its cover.” How do you educate them properly, so that when they are voters, they’re better voters?
Dr. Mary-Kate Lizotte: That’s a really good question. So, I would say that we try to engage students in the path of critical thinking. That it’s really, really important to think through different things, to challenge some of your initial assumptions, but we also teach students that partisanship is a great shortcut. It’s a great cue to use. If you have a stable party identification, it can make your life a lot easier when it comes to choosing candidates or how to feel on different issues. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t still investigate and think about what’s going on, but partisanship can really make it a lot easier to figure out who to vote for and how to look past different things like physical attractiveness or other stuff that might get in the way.
Brad Means: What about, and this goes outside the realm of your research, but what about from a candidate’s perspective? Somebody even considering running for office? Should they be concerned about making themselves as attractive as possible? I know that sounds like an ignorant question, of course, we all should, but at the same time, are there extra steps they should take to ensure their electability?
Dr. Mary-Kate Lizotte: I think that’s a really good question. I think generally, what I would say, and this is mostly speculation, is the idea that candidates don’t want to draw a lot of attention to their physical appearance.
Brad Means: Right.
Dr. Mary-Kate Lizotte: So, I think that’s probably easier for male candidates that tend to have a uniform, a dark navy suit, a dark gray suit, red tie, blue tie. For women, I think it can be a little more difficult, ’cause maybe they want to be a little bit more stylish or that uniform doesn’t really exist, but if they are possibly too stylish, then it could draw some attention to their appearance, which could lead to these negative effects that we see. I also think for male candidates, looking neat and presentable is important. There’s been discussions, obviously, about the president’s appearance, as well as Bernie Sanders’ appearance, and a lot of that was negative criticism about the fact that they don’t look like a typical politician. So, I think that political candidates just want to look like a typical politician.
Brad Means: I think you’re right, and you see that playing out when you look at candidates. What about your research when it comes to New York politics? We’ve recently seen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the woman who is running for Congress. We see, speaking of Sex in the City, Cynthia Nixon running for governor of New York, any research back on those two yet?
Dr. Mary-Kate Lizotte: There’s no research as of yet, but with Cortez, there, after he debate, there was all this talk on Twitter about what shade lipstick she was wearing, and she responded and said what brand and shade, and then all these women’s magazines decided that they were gonna go ahead and release that information widely, and I think that’s fun and interesting. It makes for a three dimensional person, but at the same time, I think it’s unfortunate, because it’s pulling attention away from her positions, and I think the same thing for any female candidate, like Cynthia Nixon or someone else that you don’t want to pull attention away from your positions, your vision, your platform, your relevant experiences, all those sorts of things. And, I think anything that might draw attention to physical appearance could potentially make it so that journalists and soft media aren’t paying attention to what you’re really gonna bring to the table as a candidate.
Brad Means: Well, so what can the candidate do when it comes to media coverage? How can they, I don’t wanna say manipulate it, but how can they help finesse it so that that’s not the focus?
Dr. Mary-Kate Lizotte: That’s such a great question. This is pure speculation, but I would say that their handlers should communicate to journalists and soft media to what extent they can. Let’s not talk about what she’s wearing. Let’s not talk about her lipstick shade. Let’s focus on the issues. I don’t think you want the candidate doing that on camera in particular, because it might come across as, I don’t know, not pleasant, but I think that as much as a candidate can look the part of just a regular, typical political candidate, that’s probably the best way to keep journalists on task, making sure that they’re asking questions about their positions.
Brad Means: Great advice indeed. Great information. Mary-Kate Lizotte, thank you for your time and for what you do to help educate our students, make ’em better voters.
Dr. Mary-Kate Lizotte: Thank you so much.
Brad Means: We appreciate it. Our time flew by, Dr. Mary-Kate Lizotte from Augusta University.