Beauty at the Ballot Box: Disease Threats Predict Preferences for Physically Attractive Leaders

Andrew Edward White, Douglas Kenrick, Steven Neuberg

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

67 Scopus citations


Why does beauty win out at the ballot box? Some researchers have posited that it occurs because people ascribe generally positive characteristics to physically attractive candidates. We propose an alternative explanation-that leadership preferences are related to functional disease-avoidance mechanisms. Because physical attractiveness is a cue to health, people concerned with disease should especially prefer physically attractive leaders. Using real-world voting data and laboratory-based experiments, we found support for this relationship. In congressional districts with elevated disease threats, physically attractive candidates are more likely to be elected (Study 1). Experimentally activating disease concerns leads people to especially value physical attractiveness in leaders (Study 2) and prefer more physically attractive political candidates (Study 3). In a final study, we demonstrated that these findings are related to leadership preferences, specifically, rather than preferences for physically attractive group members more generally (Study 4). Together, these findings highlight the nuanced and functional nature of leadership preferences.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2429-2436
Number of pages8
JournalPsychological Science
Issue number12
StatePublished - Dec 2013


  • decision making
  • evolutionary psychology
  • physical appearance
  • preferences
  • social structure

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychology(all)


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