Why You Find President Obama Attractive

Why You Find President Obama Attractive

By Nathan Siegel


Because who you find physically attractive may have nothing to do with their looks. 

By Nathan Siegel

What’s not to like? A 6-foot-1-inch basketball player with an athletic build, easy smile and a serious sort of charisma. It’s hard to deny Barack Obama’s a good-looking guy. Unless you’re a Republican.

Researchers have found that a politician’s perceived attractiveness is about as partisan a topic as same-sex marriage. The findings, published in the Leadership Quarterly, highlight just how far into our psyches politics can permeate: Now, people see even physical beauty through “party-colored glasses.” While good looks are by no means objective (thus “in the eye of the beholder”), even the study’s author, Cornell postdoc Kevin Kniffin, was taken aback.

“It’s surprising … the extent that politics has polarized people’s perception of the world,” he says. “You tend to think of physical attraction as based on just what you see,” but that’s just not the case for politicians, he says. 

Factors like political allegiance greatly affect who you crush on.

Kniffin asked 49 professional political aides and 91 everyday folks to rate two sets of politicians — one group they would recognize and the other they wouldn’t — on a scale of 1 to 9. Politicians like Obama, Sarah Palin and 14 others, who are widely familiar, received more than a one-point markdown from participants of the opposing party. The 12 unfamiliar state politicians from New York weren’t so lucky. Not only did they miss out on a boost from like-minded supporters, participants rated this group an average of two points lower. Burn.

The results somewhat contradict previous research. Take Beauty Pays, the book by Daniel S. Hamermesh, and a host of other studies that contend that your outward appearance determines how people perceive your intelligence, kindness and other endearing traits. Kniffin’s investigation proposes the opposite — that factors like political allegiance greatly affect who you crush on.

That conclusion doesn’t surprise Gabriel Lenz, a political science professor at UC Berkeley. He cites studies that show how supporters mostly won’t find any fault in their leader, whereas opponents won’t find anything but. “Among people from your own party, your advantage is inherent,” Lenz says.

People can leverage the connection between an ugly face and an ugly set of politics.

Kevin Kniffin, researcher at Cornell University


Kniffin’s research was conducted right in the heart of election season, though, so it’s likely the effect was amplified from a total bombardment of faces and names and slander and allegations about who’s more Iowa. In between elections, the bias probably wouldn’t be that extreme, he says.

There’s a marketing opportunity here. While the partisan devout are stuck in an inescapable loop of support — they like the politics, so they find the politician attractive, and vice versa — voters on the fence could be swayed by a “connection between an ugly face and an ugly set of policies,” says Kniffin. One can nearly imagine 2016: “Do you really want that face in the White House?”