5 Things About that “Republicans are More Attractive than Democrats” Study

Happy Valentine’s Day everyone! Given the spirit of the day, I thought it was a good time to post about a study Korora passed along a few days ago called “Effects of physical attractiveness on political beliefs”, which garnered a few headlines for it’s findings that being attractive was correlated with being a Republican. For all of you interested in what was actually going on here, I took a look at the study and here’s what I found out:

  1. The idea behind the study was not entirely flattering. Okay, while the whole “my party is hotter than your party” thing sounds like compliment, the premise of this study was actually a bit less than rosy. Essentially the researchers hypothesized that since attractive people are known to be treated better in many aspects of life, those who were more attractive may get a skewed version of how the world works. Their belief/experience that others were there to help them and going to treat them fairly may cause them to develop a “blind spot” that caused them to believe people didn’t need social programs/welfare/anti-discrimination laws  as much as less attractive people might think.
  2. Three hypotheses were tested Based on that premise, the researchers decided to test three distinct hypotheses. First, that attractive people were more likely to believe things like “my vote matters” and “I can make a difference”, regardless of political party. Second, they asked them about ideology, and third partisanship. I thought that last distinction was interesting, as it drew a distinction between the intellectual undertones and the party affiliation.
  3. Partisans are more attractive than ideologues. To the shock of no one, better looking people were much more likely to believe they would have a voice in the political process, even when controlled for education and income. When it came to ideology vs partisanship though, things got a little interesting. Attractive people were more likely to rate themselves as strong Republicans, but not necessarily as strong conservatives. In fact in the first data set they used (from the years 1972, 1974 and 1976) only one year should any association between conservatism and attractiveness, but all 3 sets showed a strong relationship between being attractive and saying you were a Republican. The later data sets (2004 and 2011) show the same thing, with the OLS coefficient for being conservative about half (around .30) of what the coefficient for Republicanism was (around .60). This struck me as interesting because the first headline I saw specifically said “conservatives” were more attractive, but that actually wasn’t the finding. Slight wording changes matter.
  4. We can’t rule out age cohort effects When I first saw the data sets, I was surprised to see some of the data was almost 40 years old. Then I saw they used data from 2004 and 2011 and felt better. Then I noticed that the 2004 and 2011 data was actually taken from the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study, whose participants were in high school in 1957 and have been interviewed every few years ever since. Based on the age ranges given, the people in this study were born between 1874 and 1954, with the bulk being 1940-1954. While the Wisconsin study controlled for this by using high school yearbook photos rather than current day photos, the fact remains that we only know where the subjects politics ended up (not what they might have been when they were young) and we don’t know if this effect persists in Gen X or millenials. It also seems a little suspect to me that one data set came during the Nixon impeachment era, as strength of Republican partisanship dropped almost a whole point over the course of those 4 years. Then again, I suppose lots of generations could claim a confounder.
  5. Other things still  are higher predictors of affiliation. While overall the study looked at the effect of attractiveness by controlling  for things like age and gender, the authors wanted to note that those other factors actually still played a huge role. The coefficients for the association of Republican leanings with age (1.08) and education (.57) for example  were much higher than attractiveness the coefficient for attractiveness (.33). Affinity for conservative ideology/Republican partisanship was driven by attractiveness (.37/.72) but also by income (.60/.62) being non-white (-.59/-1.55) and age (.99/1.45). Education was a little all over the place…it didn’t have an association with ideology (-.06), but it did with partisanship (.94). In every sample, attractiveness was one of the smallest of the statistically significant associations.

While this study is interesting, I would like to see it replicated with a younger cohort to see if this was a reflection of an era or a persistent trend. Additionally, I would be interested to see some more work around specific beliefs that might support the initial hypothesis that this is about social programs. With the noted difference between partisanship and ideology, it might be hard to hang your hat on an particular belief as the driver.

Regardless, I wouldn’t use it to start a conversation with your Tinder date. Good luck out there.