Nineteenth century phrenologists believed that they could discern a great deal about your abilities and personality by studying the shape of your skull. Today, phrenology is long-discredited. But many voters think they can judge candidates by making similar inferences from their attractiveness and other physical traits. Libby Copeland of Slate has an interesting article summarizing the growing body of research documenting this:
In presidential politics, does it help to look like Mitt Romney? Or, put another way, how much does Newt Gingrich’s face hurt him?
The answer will be disappointing to those who believe in the myth of the rational voter. Looks do indeed matter. But they don’t matter in exactly the way we thought—it’s not attractiveness alone that counts, but a cluster of traits people believe we can read into faces. It appears that voters, particularly those who aren’t paying much attention, don’t know much about politics, and don’t have strong partisan affiliations—which is to say, a solid number of Americans—operate like 19th-century phrenologists, believing on some not-quite-conscious level that that they can read a politician’s character by glancing at things like his eyebrows and jaw line.
Unfortunately, there is no reason to believe that voters are any better at discerning candidates’ likely performance in office from their faces than phrenologists were at predicting character traits based on skull patterns.
As Copeland notes, voters with low political knowledge levels are the ones most likely to base their decisions on candidates’ appearance. Unfortunately, relatively ignorant voters are extremely common. In this 2009 post, I described how appearance-based voting is a part of the broader problem of political ignorance and irrationality.