USF researchers find Sarah Palin's beauty may have cost the GOP ticket votes
When Sarah Palin was picked as the GOP's vice presidential candidate, some pundits wondered if her relative youth and beauty might be an advantage for a Republican party with a 72-year-old at the top of the ticket.
But two researchers at the University of South Florida have conducted an experiment that suggests the opposite, showing a random group of Republicans and Independents asked to focus on Palin's attractiveness felt less likely to vote GOP in last November's elections.
"The idea is that when you focus on a woman's appearance, this objectifies her, or turns her into a object in your eyes," said Jamie L. Goldenberg, an associate professor of psychology at USF and co-author of the study, titled "Objectifying Sarah Palin: Evidence that Objectification Causes Women to be Perceived as Less Competent and Fully Human."
"What we found, is these perceptions influenced people's likelihood of voting," she said.
In their experiment, Goldenberg and graduate student Nathan A. Heflick assembled a group of 133 undergraduates at the school a month before the president election. After noting their characteristics -- 27 percent were male, 45 percent were Democrats, 24 percent were Republicans and the rest were Independents -- they were randomly separated into four groups.
Two groups were asked to write about Palin and two groups were asked to write about actress Angelina Jolie. Within those two groups, one collection was asked to write their thoughts and feelings about the subject's appearance, and the other was asked to write about the person.
The groups were also asked to score each person on 25 traits (helpful or impulsive) and rate each trait on how essential they are to human nature, or our humanity.
They then asked who the respondents would vote for in the coming election; though they allowed four responses -- voting for John McCain, voting for Barack Obama, not voting or undecided -- the responses were tallied into two responses, voting for McCain or not.
Goldenberg said that, even factoring out the Democratic respondents (who solidly supported Obama) the Republicans and Independents who were asked to write about Palin's appearance said they were less likely to vote for the GOP than those who simply considered Palin as a person.
"There was an overall tendency to perceive Sarah Palin as less competent than Angelina Jolie," said Goldenberg, noting their results fell in line with previous studies indicating that, in high status and political jobs, attractive women were perceived as less competent than attractive men or women in other positions.
In other words, for Paris Hilton and former presidential candidate John Edwards, attractiveness is likely less damaging, though even Jolie was seen as less competent and human among those focusing on her appearance.
Goldenberg admits the study, which is to be published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, may spark more questions than it answers. Did media coverage of Palin's attractiveness feed this dynamic? (The professor said the experiment was conducted before news reports that the GOP spent $150,000 on Palin's wardrobe.)
Did the respondents' youth have an effect? Does this dynamic extend to men who are considered attractive -- say, Edwards or Today show anchor Matt Lauer, or President Obama?
"What you can't tell from this, is what did they finally do in the end?" said Joel Cooper, a professor of psychology at Princeton University and editor of the journal publishing Goldenberg and Heflick's study. "But at the moment they thought of (Palin) as a beauty queen, they were less likely to consider voting for (her) . . . Knowing that is important for campaigns and how we understand each other."
And does this show that female politicians who tend to play down their appearance, like Hillary Clinton, are instinctively on to something?
"We wouldn't say attractiveness is a bad thing," said Goldenberg. "But having people focus on your appearance and not who you say and what you are, is a bad thing."