“It is well established that being beautiful confers many advantages on a person.” This is the opening sentence of a break-through paper by two Swedes and a Finn. From that true statement, our authors conclude pretty politicians do better than ugly ones, and that evaluations “of beauty explain success in real elections better than evaluations of competence, intelligence, likability, or trustworthiness.”
The paper is The Looks of a Winner: Beauty, Gender and Electoral Success (by Berggren, Jordahl, and Poutvaara). In it, our “researchers” define a “beauty premium”, which is a statistical quantification of the advantage the gorgeous have over the facially challenged (I’m not up on the PC euphemism for ugly; anybody know it?).
To discover the beauty premium, the men showed photos of about 2,000 Finnish politicians to around 3,000 non-Finnish non-politicians. They wanted to know “whether male and female respondents differ in their evaluation of candidates’ beauty and other traits.” Why? Because—and I don’t know whether to weep or laugh as I paste in this next quotation—“The beauty literature so far has paid scant attention to the gender
Beauty literature? Good grief!
Well, we might as well stick with it. They quote from a personage named Langlois:
The meta-analyses showed that, both within and across cultures, people agreed about who is and is not attractive. Furthermore, attractiveness is an advantage in a variety of important, real-life situations. We found not a single gender difference and surprisingly few age differences, suggesting that attractiveness is as important for males as for females and for children as for adults. (Our italics.)
Non! cry our crew. They say that Langlois might be right about beauty in other arenas, but in “electoral studies, rather little is reported on gender and beauty.” Thus a new paper—or even better, new papers—are needed. The only possible evidence is from one Hamermesh, who looked at elections at the “American Economic Association, and his results indicate that there is a large and almost statistically significant effect of beauty on the electoral success of a male candidate” but none with females.
Elections at the American Economic Association? Almost statistically significant? Why, that is as good as statistically significant!
Actually, I cannot fault them for this faux pas because, as I often argue, the term “statistically significant” should be banished from the kingdom for good and for all time. For one, it is ripe for abuse of the sort perpetrated by our authors. For another, almost nobody has any idea what it really means (not much, and not what most think it does).
The study itself is dull. The pictures are shuffled and shown and the raters are asked various questions related to beauty and other traits. There are no surprises; indeed, it would have been surprising if there were surprises. There are plenty of criticisms that can be leveled at the design and analysis, but why bother? This study is the kind of bad statistics I call “Type 1 Bad”, meaning it purports to prove something that was already obvious. It is therefore, as Douglas Adams might have said, mostly harmless.
So why mention it? Because our authors could not restrain themselves. They must have more! They went from saying something obviously true, to saying something stupid and false. They could not just present the results, they had to theorize about them. In comments to a gullible press, Berggren said, “One possible explanation is that people who are seen or consider themselves beautiful tend to be more anti-egalitarian and right wing.”
Now, there is not one word of theorizing in the paper. Yet Berggren and his brother authors could not resist opining on the popularity of (yes) Sarah Palin1 and Ronald Reagan. “I think the right has been more conscious of looks,” said Berggren. Evidence? And what’s that bit about people considering themselves beautiful? Wild, wishful extrapolation, that’s what.
It might be true—and probably is, if my mirror is any guide—that conservatives are better looking than lefties. But it does not follow from this that conservatives are more anti-egalitarian, unless by that word they mean “freedom loving.” We can conceded that in the contest of which side of the aisle is more efficient at removing freedoms, the left have compiled a steady stream of victories.
Let’s test out our authors’ theory. Pictured below are Berggren, Jordahl, and Poutvaara (in that order). Which are the lefties and which conservatives? (It will also be obvious which of these considers himself more beautiful.) Click on their names to land on their web pages, where their political beliefs will reveal themselves.
1Laura, if you’re reading this: she is hot.