Our decisions aren’t always as rational as we think, and choosing a presidential candidate is no exception. Researchers at Texas Tech have found an innate preference for candidates who are more physically imposing. This tendency is considered to be an example of evolutionary psychology, in which modern-day humans still exhibit behaviors developed in our hunter-gatherer days. (Or, simply put, “caveman politics.”)
<3>A leader looks like…
The height advantage is by no means absolute, but the taller presidential candidate won 58% of the time from 1789 to 2008. Researchers Gregg R. Murray and J. David Schmitz first looked at current and past human cultures, as well as social animals, and found a preference for larger leaders. Then, to further test this attitude for current-day citizens, they had subjects draw pictures of the “typical citizen” and “ideal national leader.” 64% of the subjects drew the leader as taller than the average citizen.
According to Schmitz, “We believe this research extends beyond merely establishing an association between physical stature and leadership by offering a theoretical basis for this phenomenon. Culture and environment alone cannot explain how a preference for taller leaders is a universal trait we see in different cultures today, as well as in societies ranging from ancient Mayans, to pre-classical Greeks, and even animals.”
It’s not clear what this means for female candidates, who might fit the “alpha male” image even less than a short male candidate. I think the height variable falls into the whole “looks presidential” basket of attributes, along with personal bearing, speaking ability and voice quality, even hair and manner of dress. A leader who looks and sounds the part has less of a hurdle to overcome than one who has great ideas but looks less like Central Casting’s version of the nation’s leader.
The mental conflict voters face in dealing with contrasts between substance and appearance is shown by research I described in Priming by Order. Ross Perot was probably one of the least impressive presidential candidates ever in terms of physical attributes – short, projecting ears that would rival Obama’s, not much hair, and a grating voice. At the same time, he was an amazingly successful business leader and demonstrated great personal commitment – when several employees were being held hostage in Iran and the government was making no progress in gaining their release, he send a private commando team into the country to rescue them. Voters who first learned about his background and accomplishments judged Perot far more favorably than those who heard him speak first.
2012: Jump Ball
In 2012, the Republicans will neutralize the height advantage Obama had in 2008 (6’1″ vs. McCain’s 5’8″), since front-runners Mitt Romney and Rick Perry measure up at 6’2″ and 6’1″ respectively. (Herman Cain has been surging in the polls – if you know his height, please post a comment.) It’s even possible, if the heights are closely matched perhaps issues like the economy and jobs will be the decisive factor!