This Look Makes Candidates More Electable

candidates, 2016, bernie sanders, hillary clinton, donald trump, ted cruz
(Image credit: Joseph Sohm/ (Trump, Sanders, Clinton); Juli Hansen/ (Cruz))

When it comes to getting elected to political office in the U.S., looks matter — or rather, looking like you can get things done matters, a new study finds.

Researchers found that Americans preferred to vote for candidates who appeared more competent, according to the study, published today (April 21) in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science. Chinese participants, on the other hand, valued candidates who appeared to have better social skills, the researchers found.

In the study, the researchers sought to compare how cultural differences — for example, an emphasis on individualism in America versus an emphasis on collectivism, or giving priority to the group over the individual, in East Asia — would affect how people viewed elected leaders. [Smile Secrets: 5 Things Your Grin Reveals About You]

It turned out that the appearance of competence, or the ability to complete certain goals, was more important to American participants, while the appearance of "social competence," or the ability to navigate social situations and be sensitive to the needs of others, played a greater role in the decision for Chinese participants.

It's important to consider these cultural differences in how people view leaders, as the United States is becoming increasingly multicultural, Fang Chen, a professor of psychology at the University of Delaware and the lead author of the study, said in a statement.

In the study, the researchers recruited American students and Chinese students, and showed them 20 pairs of faces. Ten of the pairs were American men who had previously run against each other for a U.S. Senate seat, and 10 were Taiwanese men who had previously run against each other for a seat in the Taiwanese parliament.

For each pair of photos, the researchers asked the participants to indicate which candidate in the pair better appeared to exhibit a specific trait, such as likability, intelligence, trustworthiness or dominance, according to the study. Then, they asked the participants to rank, on a scale from 1 to 9, how much more the selected candidate exhibited that trait compared to the other candidate (for example, how much more likable one candidate was, compared to the other).

The researchers also asked the participants how likely they would be to vote for each candidate in a hypothetical election.

The American participants were more likely to vote for the candidates who they viewed as more competent, while the Chinese participants placed more stock in the candidates they viewed as more trustworthy and dominant, according to the study. In addition, the Chinese participants valued social competence more than the American participants did, the researchers found. [7 Personality Traits That Are Bad for You]

The researchers noted that the results of the hypothetical elections didn't always line up with the actual election results. In a real election, a candidate's views on issues and party affiliate also come into play, the authors wrote in the study. 

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Sara G. Miller
Staff Writer
Sara is a staff writer for Live Science, covering health. She grew up outside of Philadelphia and studied biology at Hamilton College in upstate New York. When she's not writing, she can be found at the library, checking out a big stack of books.