In a Sept. 4, 2008 column, just after Sarah Palin accepted the Republican nomination for vice-president, Will Wilkinson wrote admiringly of her “sexual power,” adding: “I think she is a tremendously sexy woman. How this will affect the race, I have no idea, but it’s just got to.”
New research suggests the Cato Institute research fellow was right. The Alaska governor’s attractiveness may indeed have affected the race — by making voters less likely to support the GOP ticket.
In a paper just published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, psychologists Nathan Heflick and Jamie Goldenberg of the University of South Florida describe an experiment they conducted shortly after Wilkinson wrote those words. Building upon 1980s research suggesting attractive women in high-status jobs are perceived as less competent (a finding that has been challenged in recent years), they examined whether Palin’s sex appeal — the subject of endless media chatter in the weeks after she joined the ticket — hindered her ability to make the case she was up for the job.
They took a group of 133 undergraduates and assigned them to write a few lines about one of two celebrities: Palin or actress Angelina Jolie. Half of the participants in each category were asked to write “your thoughts and feelings about this person,” while the other half were asked to write “your thoughts and feelings about this person’s appearance.”
The participants were then asked to rate their subject (Palin or Jolie) in terms of various attributes, including competence. Finally, they were asked who they intended to vote for in the upcoming election.
Those who wrote about Palin’s appearance were more positive in their assessments than those who assessed her qualities as a person, but they rated her far lower in terms of competence, intelligence and capability, and were far less likely to indicate they planned to vote for the McCain-Palin ticket.
“It wasn’t her appearance per se” that soured people on Palin, Heflick said in an interview. “It was the effect her appearance had on their perception of her competence and humanity. Those variables made people less likely to vote for her.” (Not surprisingly, the participants’ feelings about Jolie did not influence their political opinions, whether they focused on her looks or personality.)
Heflick noted that all the self-proclaimed Democrats participating in the exercise indicated they were voting for Obama. So at least in this sample, it was Republicans and independents who were internally debating Palin’s suitability for the job. The study suggests that their confidence in her abilities may have decreased the more they focused on her looks — and thus, in feminist terms, objectified her.
There’s no question that, in the early weeks of the campaign, Palin’s attractiveness was a subject of intense fascination in the media. Even today, the Web site of GQ magazine refers to the Alaska governor as “the cougar in chief,” commenting, “She’s here, she’s built, and she’s not wearing any goddamn old-lady-senator suits, either.” (Take that, Hillary Clinton.)
On the other hand, Palin had no problem sowing doubts about her suitability for the job. She hardly demonstrated a grasp of the issues, and was far from fast on her feet during interviews.
Heflick is quick to admit that people cast their votes for a wide variety of reasons, and it’s impossible to say whether her looks truly swayed voters. Nevertheless, he finds the study’s results troubling, in that they suggest being seen as sexually attractive may impact a woman’s “real-world chances of success.”
What’s more, this dynamic isn’t due solely to the one-track mind of males: The study group was dominated by women, with 96 taking part along with 37 men.
So did the Republican Party make a mistake in heightening Palin’s attractiveness by buying her all those beautiful outfits (a controversy that didn’t break out until after Heflick and Goldenberg completed their experiment)? Perhaps so. Americans have come to accept the idea of a female president, but we may not quite be ready for a sex-symbol-in-chief.
* Authors of the study — Jamie Goldenberg and Nathan Heflick — react to having their work misinterpreted in the mainstream media. See the story here.