Issues & Ideas | 30th March 2015

If we’re told someone is an MP, we are more likely to think they’re unattractive

We know that being attractive pays off in many fields, but ‘attractiveness’ isn’t fixed, as a new academic study shows.

Photo: Telegraph/Guardian

By and

There is plenty of research showing that being attractive pays off, particularly in business. Attractive people are more likely to be hired and make more money than the less attractive. There is also evidence that being attractive confers benefits in particular professions.

Attractive attorneys are more likely to make partner early, and patients feel more comfortable discussing their symptoms with an attractive doctor. And politics is no exception. Attractive politicians are more likely to be in election winners in countries around the world, including Britain.

Yet if attractive politicians tend to win more votes, then why does politics have such a reputation for ugliness? Maybe it is politics that is the problem. It is not a particularly great time to be a politician. There is ample evidence to suggest that trust in politics and MPs has been declining over the last few decades in countries around the world.

If attractive politicians tend to win more votes, then why does politics have such a reputation for ugliness?

In the most recent wave of the British Election Study, more than half of the British public (56 per cent) expressed low levels of trust in MPs. Given the low standing that politicians find themselves in, it would not be a surprise if it damaged how they were perceived.

To test this, we asked YouGov to show a photo and brief biography to respondents in one of their surveys. Some of the sample saw a photo, and brief biography, of Sarah Woolaston, then the MP for Totnes and currently standing for re-election (there are no MPs now Parliament has dissolved).

Sarah Wollaston, politician and doctor
Sarah Wollaston, politician and doctor

Others saw a photo and biography of Dan Poulter, then the MP for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich, and similarly standing for re-election. Before becoming MPs, both were doctors, a profession that is generally associated with more positive traits like wisdom and which enjoys much higher levels of trust than politicians.

This allowed us to manipulate the biography that respondents saw. Half of each sample saw the person described as a MP, half saw them described as a doctor.

As well as a filter question, enabling us to remove from the sample anyone who said they recognised the individual (very few did so), we asked all respondents: “On a scale from 0-10, where 0 is the lowest and 10 is the highest, how physically attractive do you think they are?”

We asked about physical attractiveness explicitly, to avoid any more general sense of someone having an attractive personality; given the relative standing of the two professions, it would not be a surprise if doctors were seen as being more attractive people than MPs (being kinder, more caring); they should not, however, be any more attractive physically.

Dan Poulter, politician and doctor
Dan Poulter, politician and doctor

Male respondents saw no statistically significant difference between the male MP and the male doctor. And female respondents saw no statistically significant difference between the female MP and the female doctor.

But when judging people of the opposite sex, there were differences, and in the expected direction. Male respondents gave an average score of 6.4 to Sarah Woolaston when told she was a doctor. And men who were told she was a MP gave her an average score of 5.7.

When judging people of the opposite sex, there were differences.

Something almost identical happened to Dan Poulter. Female respondents gave him an average score of 6.3 when told he was a doctor, but 5.7 when he was a MP.

These differences aren’t huge – you don’t become a sex symbol if you are a doctor, Quasimodo if you are an MP – but in each case they are statistically significant. Yes, we only tested two professions, and only with two candidates. (If you want us to test more options, give us the money and we’ll gladly do so.) But based on this, politics does seem to reduce your attractiveness, as least to members of the opposite sex (and at least when compared to doctors).

Everyone knows the line – usually attributed to Jay Leno, but actually originating with Paul Begala – that politics is ‘show business for ugly people’. It may rather be that it is politics that makes people ugly.

Philip Cowley and Caitlin Milazzo both teach politics at the University of Nottingham.