Politics is Simple: Vote for the Tall Guy


Republican Presidential Candidates

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.”)

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.”

Alpha Female?

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.

First Impressions

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!

  1. Margaret J. King says

    Of course physical features are taken as extensions of mental states and character, especially for leadership roles. There is another aspect: in presidential contests, we elect Dad: whichever of the two candidates best fits our ideal image of the father figure. Family dynamics are really the only system we know and understand well from birth; platforms and political agendas are far more complex and less knowable or projectable factors. Cultural analysis considers political issues an extension of human factors and values — this is how human decisions are always made.

  2. Roger Dooley says

    Good points, Margaret. There’s data from business showing that tall men are more likely to be promoted than shorter guys, and that they also earn more money.


  3. Vidierre says

    How explain the Italian case? Here we found Berlusconi, Brunetta…..

  4. Roger Dooley says

    Vidierre, the height advantage isn’t always enough. In the US, the shorter candidate won 42% of the time. Look at Napoleon’s success… though he didn’t have to face the electorate.


  5. Shawn Collins says

    I have to wonder what percent of voters actually examine the positions, watch the debates, research the accomplishments of politicians, etc.

    It seems height, whether they would be fun to join for a beer, and other inane things trump the important stuff for most.

    1. I think you hit on a good point here. These superficial / instinctive features play a large role for the voters (or customers) who are not educated on the subject matter. They pay greater attention and are more persuaded by these features because they do not have the knowledge to assess the candidate on other more important features.

  6. Roger Dooley says

    I have to agree that emotional factors outweigh candidate policies in many cases. I remember hearing an NPR interview with a Democratic primary voter in 2008 who could decide whether to vote for Obama because he was black (like her) or Hillary because she was a woman (like her). The specific policies of each candidate, their experience, etc., didn’t seem to enter into it. That’s not to say that policies (and performance of incumbents make no difference), but it’s probably a lot less than we’d like to think.


  7. Loes | bodylanguage says

    Bodylanguage is not only length, it is also bodyposture and attidude. This last compensated Napoleons shorth length. Bodylanguage became more important with television, it is a known fact that Medvelev has special shoes to give him a stronger bodylanguage.


  8. Kira Stein says

    “….the taller presidential candidate won 58% of the time from 1789 to 2008.”

    I would love to know how much higher (I presume) the percent would be if we limited the stats to the period since the U.S. public has had access to television (1950-2011).

  9. George Torok says

    Curious that size matters as a leadership qualifier. Yet, I’ve never seen it listed as one of the characteristics in the leadership books.

    I also wonder if size plays a big factor because it is easily measureable. It’s much more difficult to measure all the other leadership qualities.

    Perhaps another explaination is that when all else fails or confuses – we believe what we see.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Not so curious, George (sorry, had to say that), if you consider alpha male dominance in primates is influenced by size and strength.

      Leadership books are usually written to offer techniques to become more leader-like, and won’t typically tell people who are short or unattractive that they are less likely to inspire that feeling in others.

      All this is a gross simplification, of course. There are plenty of examples of Napoleon-scale leaders.


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