Washington, October 31 : The John McCain campaign's decision to play up the great looks of his running mate Sarah Palin may turn out to be a winning strategy, for Northwestern University researchers have found that both men and women think that female political candidates need to be seen as attractive as well as competent to get their votes.
"Even female voters seemed to tap into the cultural expectation that women who are attractive as well as competent are more worthy of high status roles," said Joan Y. Chiao, an assistant professor of Psychology at the university.
The researchers said that though gender bias related to a female candidate's attractiveness was consistent across both male and female voters, good looks was almost all that mattered in predicting men's votes for female candidates.
They added that competence, on the other hand, was almost all that mattered in predicting men's votes for male candidates.
"Campaign managers seem to be ahead of the game in understanding that image really matters. They know that, contrary to popular notions, people are not necessarily using deliberate and rational strategies in deciding whom to vote for, especially when it comes to women," said Chiao.
For their study, the researchers showed pictures of congressional candidates from the 2006 election to the study subjects, and asked them to rate, on a seven-point scale, how competent, attractive, approachable and dominant the politicians were.
In a separate task, the researchers showed the subjects a pair of candidates from the 2006 congressional race, and asked them to choose one of the two for President of the United States.
Overall, voters perceived the faces of male politicians as more competent and dominant relative to female politicians, while female politicians were perceived as more attractive and approachable relative to males.
According to Chiao, candidates perceived as more attractive by men were more likely to win votes in the actual Congressional election.
"Given the research showing that men and women essentially do not differ in leadership effectiveness, voters' perception of male politicians as more competent than female politicians is likely driven by lingering cultural stereotypes," the researcher said.
The study also showed that female voters were more likely to vote for male politicians who appeared approachable as well as competent.
The researchers said that the reason women cared about approachability in male candidates had to do with evolutionary biases related to mate selection, meaning that women relate approachability in men with reproductive success.
They further said that drawing on the same type of emotional response, they might relate approachability in male politicians with the ability to lead people in and out of war.
Appearing in the open-access journal PLoS ONE, the study addresses the perplexing question of why so few women are represented in the majority of political offices around the world, particularly at the highest echelons of government.
The research article says that as women become an increasingly visible presence in electoral politics and government, voters may learn to reduce their reliance on cognitive shortcuts, or gender stereotypes, in assessing female political candidates.