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Model Politicians

18 September 2017

In May 2017, France elected a new President in what was undoubtedly one of its most uncertain elections in a long time. The usual right-and left-wing division seemed to fall apart, and from that mess emerged a new political figure, unknown until recently, in the form of Emmanuel Macron.

The subject of politics is not taboo in my family – although we do sometimes butt heads, we always do so in a respectful manner. And so one evening a few weeks before the elections, I asked my grand-mother if she knew who she would be voting for. My dad and I are more left-wing, while she has always had a more conservative view in general. This time, however, she seemed to have been seduced by the newly arrived Macron and told me she was thinking of voting for him. I asked her what the reasons were behind her choice. “Well, he has new ideas, plus he’s young and quite pleasant to look at!” was the answer she gave me.

I looked at her in disbelief. “You’re going to vote for him because you like his … looks?” I asked, and although she assured me it was not the only reason, she had trouble giving me a precise answer when I asked for specific policies that she supported. Now far be it from me to accuse my grandmother of not taking into account what’s most important, but to me, it raised an interesting question to be addressd. I suddenly realised that some people base their political decisions on the leader’s looks, something that seemed especially true of Emmanuel Macron.

Of course there is nothing wrong with having a young president, who seems ‘fresh’ and ‘new’ because he appeared on the political scene just a few years ago, but it seems absolutely unbelievable to me to choose a candidate based on his looks and not his policies. The candidate I voted for, the leader of the Socialist Party, was admittedly not very ‘presidential’, and definitely not good-looking, but I could not have cared less about that – I chose him because I believed his policies were the smartest and most bene-ficial for the country in the long term, and that they shared a lot of my ideals, values and ethics.

Macron ended up winning the election quite comfortably, and although you could argue that many only voted for him to prevent a far-right victory by Marine Le Pen, it is safe to say that quite a few people voted for him because of the charisma that he seems to exude. This has even been given a name – ‘The Macron Effect’, as if youth and good looks – I’ll let you form your own opinions on that one – are enough to make someone a viable head of state.

An article published in the newspaper Le Monde, titled ‘Does beauty favour success?’, deals with the Macron phenomenon. While considering whether physical beauty is related to professional success, it relates, among others, the words of two women in the metro. ‘It’s difficult not to vote for this good-looking guy,’ they say, holding a newspaper with the soon-to-be President on the cover. In an interesting analysis, Le Monde suggests that although the criteria regarding good looks are usually subjective, beauty is still considered as a rarity. It is, by definition, an exception – because what stands out is what is singular and unique. Therefore, if we return to the French election, it is not that surprising that, among the bunch of sixty-year-old candidates “that we have known for thirty years and have already promised the earth”, adds the paper, the face of the centre-right candidate appeared an exception.

This has actually been studied by researchers, in a 2011 study from the University of Aston in the UK, that attractive candidates usually had higher chances of winning. This is partly because people are unconsciously looking for the taller and better-looking leaders, as if it means that those people were fittest for the role. Yet on the contrary, political leaders with asymmetrical or crooked features – the study uses Winston Churchill as an example – tend to be more successful and more popular, because of the need to overcome this ‘disadvantage’. Churchill, especially, is remembered for his ‘bulldog-like’ features.

The leading researcher of the study, Dr Carl Senior, explains this tendency by the fact that people instinctively associate symmetrical people with more intelligence, and a better standard of life. On the other hand, “the asymmetrical group has to develop more positive social skills to compensate for these perceived shortcomings. The greater asymmetry the leaders have across their body, the more socially rewarding and inspirational they are.”

According to another study in the Social Science Quarterly, it is said that we as human beings tend to seek powerful (tall and strong) figures, as our pre-historic ancestors needed the help of powerful allies to survive. Therefore, faces that appear to be closer to the ideal of a ‘fit human being’ seem more appealing, even if the judgment is made unconsciously.

Of course this is not the only dimension through which we can analyse the success of a leader in relation to his or her features; the reaction of these people to prejudices or misconceptions about them is also crucial. They may be encouraged to work even harder, and needless to say, life experiences shape characters as well. But we do all need to be aware of this underlying phenomenon, and try not to let ourselves be won over by a poli-tician’s features. Whether it’s their ethereal beauty that strikes you, or the perfect align-ment and shape of those ears or eyes – please do us all a favour and read up on their policies first.