Political Behavior

, Volume 39, Issue 1, pp 77–102 | Cite as

Face Value? Experimental Evidence that Candidate Appearance Influences Electoral Choice

  • Douglas J. Ahler
  • Jack Citrin
  • Michael C. Dougal
  • Gabriel S. LenzEmail author
Original Paper


According to numerous studies, candidates’ looks predict voters’ choices—a finding that raises concerns about voter competence and about the quality of elected officials. This potentially worrisome finding, however, is observational and therefore vulnerable to alternative explanations. To better test the appearance effect, we conducted two experiments. Just before primary and general elections for various offices, we randomly assigned voters to receive ballots with and without candidate photos. Simply showing voters these pictures increased the vote for appearance-advantaged candidates. Experimental evidence therefore supports the view that candidates’ looks could influence some voters. In general elections, we find that high-knowledge voters appear immune to this influence, while low-knowledge voters use appearance as a low-information heuristic. In primaries, however, candidate appearance influences even high-knowledge and strongly partisan voters.


Elections Candidate appearance Congressional elections Primary elections Heuristics 



We thank Luke Edwards, Aaron Kaufman, Aidan McCarthy, Tony Valeriano, and Kelsey White for research assistance and students in the fall 2012 Presidential Elections and Democratic Accountability class for help collecting candidate photos and candidate knowledge questions. We are also grateful for comments from David Doherty, Laura Stoker, conference participants at the 2013 Midwest Political Science Association Annual Meeting and the 2013 West Coast Experiments Conference at Stanford University, and research workshop participants at both the University of California, Berkeley and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Finally, we thank the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California, Berkeley for funding. Replication code and data is available from

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Human Rights and Informed Consent

The studies were approved by the Committee for the Protection of Human Subjects (CPHS) at the University of California, Berkeley. All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of CPHS and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

Supplementary material

11109_2016_9348_MOESM1_ESM.docx (1.3 mb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 1331 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Douglas J. Ahler
    • 1
  • Jack Citrin
    • 1
  • Michael C. Dougal
    • 1
  • Gabriel S. Lenz
    • 1
    Email author
  1. 1.Charles and Louise Travers Department of Political ScienceUniversity of California, BerkeleyBerkeleyUSA

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