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The Professor Will See You Now: Beards – a turnoff for voters?

Illustration by Tracy Worrall

4 min read

In an occasional series, Professor Philip Cowley offers a political science lesson for The House’s readers. This week: beards

Lather up! Bearded Conservative MPs are reaching for the razors, in the belief that facial fungus is a turnoff for the voters. 

This story is a hardy perennial of British election coverage, reappearing periodically down through the decades, whenever either MPs or journalists have become particularly desperate. Back in 1966, a Liberal council candidate was told to shave because a beard didn’t match his party’s image – which just goes to show how party images can change over time.

There is research showing that the more attractive candidates tend to win British elections

On the face of it (no pun intended) the idea that a candidate’s appearance might matter is not entirely ridiculous. There is plenty of evidence that voters, especially those with relatively low levels of interest in politics, make decisions based on intellectual shortcuts, known in the trade as ‘heuristics’. Appearance is a well-utilised heuristic in life – what is often referred to as the beauty premium. It would be strange if it didn’t impact how people viewed politicians. 

There is research showing that the more attractive candidates tend to win British elections. A study of the 2010 election found that, in close races, attractiveness alone successfully predicted the outcome of almost three-quarters of contests. It’s a remarkable finding for many reasons – and not just because if the House of Commons is made up of the more attractive candidates, can you imagine what the losers must have looked like?

When it comes to beards specifically, there is lots of research from psychology showing that people make assumptions about people with facial hair. One study in the United States found that politicians with beards were seen as more masculine, more competent, but less supportive of feminist issues – and less likely to be supported by feminists. 

Similarly, in 2017 a male grooming brand in the United Kingdom released a poll claiming that almost 70 per cent of us did not like male politicians with facial hair. Roughly the same percentage thought a clean-shaven politician was more trustworthy and more professional. In both the US and UK studies, women were marginally more pogonophobic. 

Yet consider these cautionary notes. 

Studies like these usually test one variable – in this case, appearance – in isolation. It is therefore very much a maximal finding. A real politician’s looks are in the mix along with their record, their views, their party. The actual electorate consists of people who would vote for your party even if you looked like Quasimodo; others who won’t no matter how good-looking you are; and yet others who don’t know what you look like anyway. 

Plus, things like attractiveness are context-specific, changing over time and place. The US study on beards drew on the views of students from a Midwest university. How sure are we that what floated their boat will be similar to the things that might win the approval of a pensioner in Yorkshire? 

And even if we accept the premise, think about some of the numbers involved. In Westminster elections, the personal vote of an incumbent MP is worth a couple of percentage points. We don’t know the exact composition of that (how much is a reputation for good constituency service worth, for example, compared to your voting record?) but the proportion devoted to appearance must be a fraction, and probably just a small faction, of that. 

And then consider how many beards there are to lose in the first place. Exclude the women; most of the men are clean-shaven anyway. We end up talking about an effect of a fraction of a percentage point in a handful of seats.

But this is easy for me to say. If I were a shaggy MP, in a potentially marginal seat, I would be aware that fraction might matter. Every little helps, as the ad puts it. I wouldn’t want to wake up the day after polling with a magnificent beard but no job. Maybe I would still reach for the razor. 

Further reading: R Herrick et al, Razor’s Edge: The Politics of Facial Hair, Social Science Quarterly (2015); K Mattes and C Milazzo, Pretty Faces, Marginal Races: Predicting Election Outcomes Using Trait Assessments of British Parliamentary Candidates, Electoral Studies (2014)

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