Since You Asked

Proof that leaders need to look the part

We expect successful people to be attractive, writes Tim Harford

‘Governor Chris Christie, who once famously called himself “the healthiest fat guy you’ve ever seen”, disclosed Tuesday he had secretly undergone weight-loss surgery, a major new step by the potential Republican presidential contender to address both his health and a political vulnerability.’
Associated Press, May 7

I always thought Governor Christie was too fat to be president.

You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, even if it is a padded cover. Mr Christie claims the surgery was for health reasons anyway.

I’m sure I don’t know the inside of Mr Christie’s mind, even if I do now know more about the inside of his abdomen than I care to. I just think the American electorate, like many electorates, judge politicians at least in part by their appearance.

That does seem to be true. Presidential elections are usually won by the taller candidate, for example. The last president to be elected who was shorter than the average American man was William McKinley; that was in the 19th century. Most presidents have good hair. Every president so far has had a penis.

Quite – none of these are terribly profound indicators of political competence.

Don’t be quite so sure of that. Nobody doubts that striking looks are an asset for a film star or a model. Perhaps they make other people more productive – people in sales, for instance. We do know that more beautiful people tend to earn more; slimmer people tend to earn more; taller people tend to earn more and better-groomed people tend to earn more. Maybe this is discrimination, or maybe beautiful people are better at their jobs. After all, we want politicians to speak persuasively. Why shouldn’t we want them to look persuasive, too? Or maybe something else is going on.

Such as?

It’s possible that physical appearance is correlated with something else we care about. People have made the same complaint about Mr Christie’s weight as they made about President Barack Obama’s nicotine habit: that it showed a lack of willpower. Admittedly, that’s not a very good argument – being fat is a pretty weak indicator of low willpower and one would hope that the campaign trail would provide a slightly better guide to a politician’s character.

Tall politicians win elections, but you can’t gain height through sheer determination.

Height is interesting for a different reason. There is a correlation between being tall and having a good job, and the natural explanation for that is some kind of discrimination. But the economists Anne Case and Christina Paxson argue that height is also correlated with intelligence, even for children. What seems to be going on is that poorly nourished children will tend to lose out both mentally and vertically.

I know some tall people who are pretty dim.

Of course you do. These are just statistical tendencies. When we make a snap judgment about someone because they are fat, or short or ill-groomed, we are doing both them and ourselves a disservice. Which leads to another intriguing possibility: that years of these unfair snap judgments make pretty people self-confident and ugly people shy, hesitant or bitter – and so the superficial judgments eventually become self-fulfilling.

That sounds very speculative to me.

There is some evidence for the idea, though. Two researchers, Markus Mobius and Tanya Rosenblat, confronted their experimental subjects with a series of maze puzzles, asking them to guess how quickly they could solve the mazes before inviting them to have a go. More beautiful subjects were more self-confident, but not actually any better at the task. So perhaps there is something in the idea that our appearance ends up having important effects on personality.

We’re faced with an embarrassment of riches.

True. There are many reasons why appearance may be correlated with success in life. But one study by the economist Daniel Hamermesh cleverly isolated the purely superficial effect. Professor Hamermesh looked at candidates who stood for election to an association more than once, and showed that their chances of success rose when they used a more flattering photograph.

Voters can be so superficial.

It is disappointing – especially since this should, in theory, have been the world’s most rational electorate: the members of the American Economic Association.

Also published at ft.com.

11th of May, 2013Since You Asked • Comments off