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USF study: Focus on Sarah Palin's looks altered perception of competence

When Sarah Palin was announced 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 developed a study that suggests the opposite — showing that a random group of Republicans and independents asked to focus on Palin's attractiveness felt less likely to vote for the GOP ticket in last November's elections.

"The idea is that when you focus on a woman's appearance, this objectifies her, or turns her into an 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."

In their experiment, Goldenberg and graduate student Nathan A. Heflick assembled a group of 133 undergraduates at the school a month before the 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 actor Angelina Jolie. Within each pair, one group was asked to write their thoughts and feelings about the subject's appearance, and the other was asked to write about the person. They then asked respondents how they would vote in the coming election.

Goldenberg said that, after factoring out Democratic respondents (who solidly supported Obama), the Republicans and independents asked to write about Palin's appearance said they were less likely to vote 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 in ways attractive men and women in other jobs were not.

In other words, for Paris Hilton and John Edwards, attractiveness is likely less damaging, though even Jolie was seen as less competent and human by those focused on her appearance. Goldenberg said the study, which is to be published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, may spark more questions than it answers.

"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."

Another question: Are female politicians who play down their appearance, like Hillary Clinton, instinctively on to something?

"We wouldn't say attractiveness is a bad thing," said Goldenberg. "But having people focus on your appearance and not what you say and who you are, is a bad thing."

USF study: Focus on Sarah Palin's looks altered perception of competence 03/06/09 [Last modified: Thursday, March 12, 2009 8:44am]
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