A new study shows that the success at the polls by a female politician can be predicted by their looks.
This doesn’t mean a supermodel or beauty contest winner can grab a seat in parliament purely because of their looks.
However, the results of the study suggest women’s electoral success requires a delicate balance between voters’ perception of traditional femininity and political competence.
Facial features tell all, especially in conservative areas where women with more feminine faces tend to do better at the ballot box, the Dartmouth College-led study finds.
The researchers used software called MouseTracker which was developed by the study’s senior author Jon Freeman, an assistant professor and director of the Social Cognitive & Neural Sciences Lab at Dartmouth.
MouseTracker measures computer mouse movements during psychological experiments, revealing how participants’ real-time hand movements may be partially pulled toward various alternatives and how their psychological response evolves over time.
Previous research has shown that faces with subtle atypical gender cues – women with masculine features and men with feminine features – cause initial uncertainty when people try to categorise them as male or female.
Earlier studies also have linked perceptions of competence in male politicians’ faces to political success.
But the Dartmouth-led study demonstrates for the first time that gender cues uniquely predict female politicians’ electoral success above and beyond competence, suggesting a discrepancy between traits used to evaluate male and female politicians.
“Individuals are highly sensitive to gendered facial cues, and these cues are processed within only milliseconds after seeing another’s face,” Freeman says.
“It’s important to examine how facial cues could inadvertently affect female politicians’ electoral success, especially given the possibility of a female US president in the near future and the rising number of women in Congress.”
The Dartmouth researchers wondered whether the initial confusion over how people perceive the biological and social gendered cues in politicians’ faces, such as shape of eyes, cheekbones, jawlines and brows, length of hair, makeup, may influence conservative and liberal voting behavior and election outcomes.
The results show female politicians with more feminine features tend to win elections, while those with more masculine features tend to lose.
The mouse-tracking technique further revealed that whether a female politician was going to win or lose an election could be predicted within just 380 milliseconds after participants were exposed to her face.
The effects became more pronounced as the conservatism of the constituency increased, which supports previous research indicating that conservatives may be less tolerant of uncertainty.
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