The Perceived Attractiveness of Our Leaders
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We have all heard the phrase “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” but what factors make people rate physical attractiveness differently? In a new study published in The Leadership Quarterly, researchers hypothesized that individuals would rate recognizable leaders higher in physical attractiveness, if they identify themselves as a member of the group that the leader represents.
To measure the degree to which individuals might differently regard the physical attractiveness of leaders in their own groups versus leaders of rival groups, Cornell researchers Kevin Kniffin, PhD and Brian Wansink, PhD (author of Slim by Design) along with Vladas Griskevicius of the University of Minnesota and David Sloan Wilson of SUNY Binghamton, conducted two studies. In the first study, 49 legislative aides who worked directly for either a democratic or republican candidate in the state of Wisconsin were asked to rate—on a scale of 1 to 9—the physical attractiveness of 16 “familiar” politicians (people who ran for legislative positions in recent elections in Wisconsin) and 8 “unfamiliar” politicians (people who ran for legislate positions in distant New York state). As predicted, those working with the Democratic Party rated democratic candidates as more physically attractive than those working for the Republican Party and vice versa. For unfamiliar candidates, there was no significant partisan bias indicating, not surprisingly, that there is no intrinsic physical quality that influenced the raters but that their familiarity with the leaders was what most influenced their ratings.
In a second study, 91 registered voters in a Minnesota university - who identify themselves as either democratic or republican-- used the same 1-9 scale to rate physical attractiveness of 16 “familiar” politicians and 12 “unfamiliar” politicians. The results were consistent with the first study but were not as significant. When compared with ratings of rival party members, individuals rated leaders of their own political party as more attractive. The findings in this study were not as significant likely because the voters were not personally familiar with the politicians whereas in the first study participants (legislative aides) personally knew the candidates that they rated.
The findings of both of these studies emphasize that people have biases towards leaders of groups in which they identify that are not particularly objective or rational. Physical attractiveness is not as static as people may assume. To put it in lead author Kevin Kniffin’s words, “it’s important to give group leaders, such as political candidates, a second look to be sure you’re not seeing them through party-colored glasses.”
• Download paper from the SSRN (the Social Science Research Network)
Kniffin, Kevin, Brian Wansink, Vladas Griskevicius and David Sloan Wilson (2014). Beauty is in the in-group of the beholded: Intergroup differences in the perceived attractiveness of leaders. The Leadership Quarterly, 25(6), 1143-1153. doi:10.1016/j.leaqua.2014.09.001.
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