Thursday, 13 April 2017

Beauty and the Beast: Are Conservative Politicians Prettier?

In my job-hunting for the Swedish Research Institute of Industrial Economics (abbreviated IFN in Swedish), I stumbled across what seems like a legit article that made me laugh as much as Nicolson's The Romantic Economist or Messerli's infamous correlation between Nobel Prizes and chocolate consumption. I mean, the kind of research that comes out of IFN in the first place is jaw-dropping, ranging from the Swedish equivalent of Thomas Piketty  Daniel Waldenström  to one of my favourite Swedish economists Andreas Bergh (check out his Sweden and the Revival of the Capitalist Welfare State for a great and balanced view on the Swedish welfare state). And now there's another triumph to add to IFN's list: 'The Right Look: Conservative Politicians Look Better and Voters Reward It', recently published in Journal of Public Economics in February this year, by Niclas Berggren, Henrik Jordahl and Panu Poutvaara.

If the abstract alone does not catch your eye or at least make you chuckle of delight, I promise to give it a try:
Since good-looking politicians win more votes, a beauty advantage for politicians on the left or on the right is bound to have political consequences. We show that politicians on the right look more beautiful in Europe, the United States and Australia. Our explanation is that beautiful people earn more, which makes them less inclined to support redistribution. Our model of within-party competition predicts that voters use beauty as a cue for conservatism when they do not know much about candidates and that politicians on the right benefit more from beauty in low-information elections. Evidence from real and experimental elections confirms both predictions.
In their article the authors do a couple of things. First, they try to establish that politicians for parties on the right are in fact better looking by asking people in 4 different settings to rank politicians' looks (Australian House of Representatives, Members of European Parliament, Finnish parliament and U.S. House of Representatives). The result (Table 1) was varying degrees of a resounding Yes; politicians on the right seem to enjoy a beauty advantage:

Table 1: Beauty Advantages for Politicians on the Right
European Union
United States
*** statistically significant at the 1% level; ** statistically significant at the 5% level. 

Second, they construct a standard economic model for how voters act in low-info and high-info settings respectively, that turns on whether uninformed voters use beauty as a cue for conservatism (p. 83), and then empirically support that in the following sections. What they do is showing pictures of MEPs to Americans and Europeans, asking to rank them on a scale from 1-10. Candidates representing right-wing parties had consistently higher scores, with a small but nevertheless statistically significant effect (the different between Republicans and Democrats was even smaller, but still significant). More importantly, knowing nothing about the politicians but their looks, subjects were able to more correctly place politicians along the left-right spectra according to their looks alone:
we propose that voters use beauty as a cue for conservative ideology. To test whether they do, we regress the politicians' inferred ideology on beauty evaluations from another pool of respondents, controlling for the gender and age of the politicians. We find that beautiful politicians, both in Europe and the United States, are placed farther to the right, as shown in Table 2. (p. 83)

Third, by using differences between Finnish municipality elections (low-info) and parliamentary elections (high-info), Berggren et al shows that the beauty premium exists for candidates on either side of the aisle, but more prominently in low-info settings and beauty seems to matter about twice as much for right-wing candidates than for left-wing candidates. See also the authors' 2006 research on Finnish politicians only, with the unbeatable title 'The Looks of a Winner: Beauty, Gender and Electoral Success'.

In trying to explain their results, Berggren et al draw on a very general divide between the right and the left – perceiving the world as just or not – that may ultimately stem from beauty. That is, more beautiful people are treated better, therefore less likely to experience unjust behaviour, and thus less likely to perceive injustice as a big deal in society. The implication sits neatly with Haidt’s research on moral psychology. The conclusion is both feasible and empirically supported:
A more general psychological explanation could be that good-looking people are more likely to perceive the world as a just place, since they are treated better than others (Langlois et al. 2000), achieve higher status (Anderson et al. 2001) and are happier (Hamermesh and Abrevaya, 2013) – and a frequent reason for people to sympathizewith the left is a perception of theworld as unfair -> In fact, Napier and Jost (2008) present results to the effect that people on the right are happier precisely because they do not see a need for egalitarianism, i.e., because they by and large perceive the world as a just place. (p. 81)
 Admittedly, there's some ingenuity as well as madness in the method. In part, Berggren et al solve many of the Omitted Variable Bias by randomisation, by simply remove the knowledge that could create potential OVB. They also partly rely on a strange transitivity that probably needs more work (People who look better earn more -> people who earn more are opposed to redistribution -> and more likely to support right-wing parties). Overall, I was very surprised that there was such a large literature on how politicians are perceived and how beauty matters in politics.

I also love these kinds of article: serious, rigorous but with a slightly comical twist to them; they make economics more alive and interesting. And they show the width of research coming out of IFN  check their Twitter and Facebook pages for up-to-date info.

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