Political Decisions, Part Three: Sex and Politics

Before we looked at how the structure of the brain may affect (or be affected by) your political beliefs and how a candidate’s appearance affects voter preferences.  There’s another way voter preferences can be swayed by a candidate’s appearance: the sex of the candidate.  As you’ll see, sex and politics comes down to more than just scandals.

Yet Another Political Sex Scandal

Three researchers from Northwestern University published a paper in 2008 about their experiments looking into the effect gender plays in voting preferences.  Their methods were almost exactly the same as those in the facial appearance study we discussed last time.  In the first task, the subjects rated individual candidates on four areas: competence, dominance, attractiveness and approachability.  For the second task, the participants voted in a simulated election between two candidates, one male and one female.  Unlike the previous studies, there was no fMRI analysis done here to look at the areas of the brain being activated.

An example of the images used in the two different parts of the study.


When rating the candidates, the subjects found the men more competent and dominant, but found the women more attractive and approachable.  The authors argue that this gender bias illustrates the gender gap in voting because competence has been found before to be one of the most important traits when deciding on a candidate.

The voting analysis was a bit more nuanced.  The authors looked at the data in several different ways, but the best summation is this: “Female voters were more likely to vote for male candidates who appeared both competent and approachable, but for female candidates who appeared both competent and attractive. Critically, male voters were more likely to vote for male candidates only if they appeared competent, whereas they were more likely to vote for female candidates if they appeared both attractive and competent.”  So voters were looking at different traits in male candidates than they were for female candidates.

I found the authors’ conclusions from all of this data pretty interesting.  They propose that voters are looking for the same traits in their candidates that they look for in potential mates.  Honestly, I don’t find this that surprising given that, in these studies, the subjects are asked to make snap decisions of whom they would vote for without any knowledge of the candidates’ views or history.  They’re just given the picture of the candidate; that’s it.  What else are you supposed to make these judgments based on?  I think the big thing to remember is that these are considered uninformed voters.  I guess the question then is, how informed are the actual, real-life voters?


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