How looking feminine predicts whether women will win elections

This story has been updated.

Want to know whether a female politician is going to win an election? How feminine she looks is a telling indicator,   according to a new study released Thursday by Dartmouth College.

Image courtesy of Dartmouth College
Image courtesy of Dartmouth College

"Female politicians with more feminine features tend to win election, while those with more masculine features tend to lose," write the study's authors. "Whether a female politician was going to win or lose an election could be predicted within just 380 milliseconds after participants were exposed to her face." And, the more conservative the participant's ideological leanings, the more likely they were to prefer a woman candidate with very traditional feminine features.  "Female politicians who activated the male category to a greater extent received less electoral support, an effect exacerbated in more conservative constituencies," reads the study. (Here's how the study defined gender features, relying on past studies on how we perceive male and female: "Larger eyes and rounded features convey femininity whereas lateral bone growth and prominent upper brows signal masculinity.")

The Dartmouth team used a technology called MouseTracker to arrive at the results. In essence, the 300 participants were shown a candidate's face on screen and asked to identify the gender as quickly as possible.  Then the results of how quickly they moused over to the gender were compared for a variety of faces and matched up with the win-loss record of the candidates, which were pulled from the winners and second-place finishers in Senate and gubernatorial election between 1998 and 2010. (You can watch a video explaining the process here.)


Image courtesy of Dartmouth College

The findings affirm what other studies have shown: Looks (or at least adherence to traditional assumptions about gender) matter — and people make snap decisions (largely) based on looks about a candidate in an instant. There's a reason — particularly in this age not just of television but of high-definition television — that less-attractive candidates tend to win less often. (As we've often maintained, if looks matter in every other facet of life, why wouldn't they matter in politics?)

The Dartmouth study also suggests that looking feminine matters more to a female candidate's chances of winning than looking masculine matters to a male candidate's prospects.  Again, according to the study:

Earlier studies also have linked perceptions of competence in male politicians' faces to political success. But the Dartmouth-led study demonstrates for the first time that gendered cues uniquely predict female politicians’ electoral success above and beyond competence, suggesting a discrepancy between traits used to evaluate male and female politicians.

Put in regular people terms: Male candidates' looks are judged more by whether they appear able to do the job while, at least according to the Dartmouth study, female candidates' looks are seen first through the prism of femininity.

It's hard to avoid viewing this study in light of the potential (likely) candidacy of Hillary Clinton for president in 2016. As we have previously written, Clinton played down her gender — and the historic nature of her candidacy — during the 2008 candidacy, a move that we believe hurt her. She's not likely to repeat that mistake in 2016 — if her earlier rhetoric is any indication — but the Dartmouth study suggests that what she says may matter less to voters than how she looks, all of which reaffirms that life really is just like high school.

Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to Dartmouth University. The institution is called Dartmouth College.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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