How would a group of anonymous overseas citizens who know nothing about our politicians rate them? About the same as we do? The answer is yes – with one notable exception.

A new study recently conducted by a team of researchers from the School of Psychology at the University of Auckland shows that a sample of US citizens asked to rate our political leaders by mugshot alone think that John Key is Competent and Attractive – more so than Labour Leader David Cunliffe.

But the big surprise in the Politics of Appearance survey concerns Internet Mana Leader Laila Harre—Harre topped the survey on three out of four judging criteria: Competence, Trustworthiness and Attractiveness.

“She really stands out,” says Head of the School of Psychology Professor Will Hayward. “The gap between her and the others is statistically significant so you would have to wonder what would happen if she was given the same exposure and air time as the two main party leaders.”

The study does, however, reinforce John Key’s nice-guy image: he comes second to Harre on Competence and Attractiveness.

“We tend to attribute positive traits to people we find attractive and that appears to be the case here. Key stands out as being seen as more Competent and Attractive than Cunliffe and that gives him a big advantage before he has even opened his mouth,” says Lecturer in Political Psychology Dr Danny Osborne.

New Zealand First Leader Winston Peters gets very mixed results in the survey: third behind Harre and Key on Competence, but he ranks at the bottom of the list for perceived Trustworthiness and Likeability.

“It is pretty interesting that he doesn’t rate particularly highly on most of the categories, yet is still viewed as highly competent; ultimately, he has the face that people can see being a political leader, even if they don’t judge him as trustworthy or likeable,” Professor Hayward says.

Another candidate with mixed fortunes in the face poll is Conservative Leader Colin Craig: he gets a high rating for Attractiveness and Likeability – fourth and third respectively – but is well down the list on the Competence and Trustworthiness scale (second to bottom for both).

The survey also asked US participants to rate the candidates in the key seat of Epsom. Going on appearances alone, the news is not so good for Act candidate David Seymour. While National candidate Paul Goldsmith and Labour candidate Michael Wood are neck and neck when judged solely on appearance, Seymour is consistently rated as the least competent out of the three candidates.

Professor Hayward says research done overseas shows that judgements based on looks alone often align surprisingly closely with actual election outcomes.

“Of course voters will consider more than just how the candidates look, but we predict that Act may have a harder time winning the seat this election than in 2011, simply based on their choice of a candidate whose appearance doesn’t inspire confidence,” Professor Hayward says.

Dr Osborne adds that: “Overall, the study’s real purpose is to remind us to think hard about policies because we’ll all be influenced by appearances – and so the faces of some of our political leaders may give them a bit of a boost at the ballot box. But the main thing is to get to a polling booth and exercise your democratic right – vote!”

The survey used market research tool Amazon Mechanical Turk and recruited only US citizens to rate candidates from National and Labour, as well as all of the party leaders (and co-leaders), who were running in the 2014 general election. Survey participants judged each of the candidates on a scale of 0 to 6 on four criteria: Competence, Trustworthiness, Likeability and Attractiveness.


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