Appearance important to political success

The appearance and facial features of politicians are important to their political success. This is the result of a Master's thesis from Aarhus University, Business and Social Sciences, which the Danish Society of Survey Research (Selskab for Surveyforskning) recently has elected as the best Danish Master's thesis using questionnaire data in 2011.

"He has got the looks!" – this is the title of a Master's thesis by PhD student Lasse Laustsen from Aarhus University, Business and Social Sciences. In his thesis, he studies how facial features on election posters affect people's decision when voting for a candidate.

He used 646 questionnaires to conduct the survey, and his approach was so creative that the Danish Society of Survey Research has awarded him the prize for best Danish Master's thesis using survey methodology in 2011. In addition to the honour, he has received DKK 5,000.

Creative research design
How do you define a "kind" and "competent" face? Lasse Laustsen got 646 Danish gymnasium students to answer this question via an electronic questionnaire, which included a number of portraits.

- These were photos of the candidates in the local government elections in 2009, which the students rated on a scale from 1 to 10 based on a number of personal characteristics. This gave me a detailed description of the facial features of each politician. When compared to the actual distribution of personal votes at the local government elections, I began to see a connection, says Lasse Laustsen.

This creative approach has attracted the attention of the Danish Society of Survey Research, which, at the award ceremony, described the survey as being "very original and well performed". The Danish Society of Survey Research also noted that Lasse Laustsen's Master's thesis can contribute significantly to relatively new literature.

Kind socialists and strong liberals
However, there has already been conducted a great deal of research into the effects of candidates' appearance, but Lasse Laustsen's thesis is distinguished by examining more closely the so-called interaction effects, which are the conditions that affect the actual connection. He explains that while a competent appearance is a universal benefit, different facial features appeal to different voters:

- It seems that "red" candidates can obtain votes by means of a friendly and attractive appearence, while "blue" candidates should preferably appear dominant and strong. In fact, the survey shows that voters punish the centre-right candidates who look too friendly and sympathetic, says Lasse Laustsen, adding that all the observed effects are greater in connection with the male candidates than their female colleagues.

Answers found in the stone-age brain
The results of the thesis are not final. The established effects prepare the ground for new, interesting questions on which Lasse Laustsen intends to follow through in his PhD dissertation.

- The next step is to build on the thesis and develop a more general theory about why we choose the candidates that we do. I am going to dig deeper into the subject matter in order to understand the mechanisms that underlie our tendency to choose leaders.

Lasse Laustsen started on his PhD in September 2011, and although he is still affiliated with Aarhus University, Business and Social Sciences, the project draws on knowledge from quite different academic disciplines.

- The theory draws on evolutionary psychology, which argues that not only our physique but also our way of thinking is an evolutionary adaptation. This may explain why the effect of facial features is stronger in connection with male candidates. Maybe our brains are not designed to look for leadership skills in women to the same extent, he explains.

Further information


Lasse Laustsen
PhD student at Aarhus University, Business and Social Sciences
Department of Political Science and Government
Tel.: +45 87165587