Senator Joe Biden did himself no favours when he “praised” his fellow presidential hopeful, Barack Obama, as “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy”. It did not take long for the implication to sink in: does Senator Biden think that previous black candidates such as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton are inarticulate, dim, dirty or ugly?
Senator Biden has been charging around apologising to everybody, but what nobody really wants to admit is this: one of Senator Obama’s qualities is that he is handsome, and handsome politicians have a habit of getting elected. Economists have found evidence that voters prefer a pretty face in the UK, Australia, Finland, Germany and the US.
Researchers have to be careful when they observe simple correlations between subjective beauty and electoral success. Amy King and Andrew Leigh, who studied Australian elections, wondered whether the findings were driven by ageism or racism: perhaps (mostly white) voters see a black face and believe the face’s owner is both unattractive and unfit to govern. That sounds miserably plausible, but it is not driving the results: restricting analysis only to white politicians, or those in a narrower age band, produces similar estimates of a beauty premium.
It is not just politicians that we prefer to be beautiful. A number of studies, many involving the American economist Daniel Hamermesh, have found that “ugly” people earn less in many walks of life, from advertising to law. The beauty premium seems to apply even in professions where there is no reason to expect that beauty counts…
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