A study for the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology suggests that people in different countries have similar ideas of what it means for a politician to "look presidential," or at least Americans and Bulgarians do. The authors, Abigail Sussman, Kristina Petkova, and Alexander Podorov, write:
In the present study, we tested whether the predictive ability of ratings based on facial appearance would extend to a wider range of candidates. Specifically, we examined whether individuals in the US could predict outcomes in the 2011 Bulgarian presidential elections by evaluating the facial appearance of 18 candidates. The large number of candidates naturally running for the high level office allowed us to accurately test the strength of the relationship between judgments of facial appearance and election outcomes across a broad range of faces. We found that a strong correlation between ratings of facial competence and election outcomes persisted across the full range of candidates, and that US participants' hypothetical choices paralleled actual Bulgarian election outcomes. We demonstrated that competence ratings were more effective at predicting election outcomes than judgments on a variety of other characteristics deemed important by Bulgarian voters as well as ratings of attractiveness. Furthermore, judgments of competence largely drove the correlation between hypothetical and actual votes.
In case you're curious, the candidate above --former European Commissioner for Consumer Protection Meglena Kuneva, the only headshot included in the published paper -- got the highest scores on both "competence" and "honesty" from the American participants who had no idea who she was. She came in second for "attractiveness" to Maria Kapon, who -- it seems relevant to point out -- was the only other woman in the field. (The survey-takers were exactly 50 percent male.) On the question of who the participants would vote for, Kuneva came in third, which is exactly how it turned out in the real election.
The winner of the election, the 49-year-old, silver-haired Rosen Plevneliev, scored highest on hypothetical vote, third highest on competence, and third highest on attractiveness. The top three finishers in the real world election got 83 percent of the hypothetical vote.
This is just one of a number of similar studies. One asked Australians to pick U.S. presidential primary winners. Another that asked Swiss children which French politician they would want to be "captain of their boat". Both were pretty accurate. It apparently works decently across ethnicities as well: Americans and Indians are pretty good at picking Mexican and Brazilian winners.
War of Ideas is a blog on the theory behind the practice of global politics. Foreign Policy associate editor Joshua E. Keating brings you the latest research, data, and intellectual debates from around the world.