The Political Significance of Physical Attractiveness

What factors may influence how much media coverage members of the United States Congress receive? Recently a team of researchers examined the role of candidate attractiveness in determining the amount of media coverage elected members of the U.S. Congress obtain. Surprisingly, they found that politicians who were rated as more attractive received more media coverage in terms of television but not radio or print media coverage. More specifically, an increase of one point on an attractiveness rating scale (1-­‐ 10) was associated with 11.62% more appearances on nationally televised media programming. Importantly, this effect was found over and above the influence of such critical factors as political seniority, media-­‐market membership, legislative activity, political ideology, and House or Senate membership.

So why are attractive members of Congress receiving significantly more televised media coverage? Given that the effect of politician attractiveness was only found for televised news coverage, the researchers suggest that this effect is possibly driven by audience expectations or viewers prefer to view attractive legislators. This suggests that perhaps journalists’ beliefs about what  draws high viewership are contributing to this discrepancy in coverage. Alternatively, there may be something about the politicians themselves that make them more newsworthy. For example, perhaps attractiveness is related to another predictor of news coverage such as friendliness. More research is needed to parse why we may find such a strong relationship between candidate appearance and media coverage.

Does this discrepancy in media coverage translate into a greater number of reelections to Congress? The association between politician attractiveness and media coverage has the potential to impact electoral outcomes. In an election year when voters are making tough decisions, media coverage has the potential to sway those voters who are on the fence.

Waismel-­Manor, I., & Tsfati, Y. (2011). Why do better-­looking members of congress receive more television coverage? Political Communication, 28(4), 440-­463.


Science Versus Religion – Mortal enemies or hopeful friends?

The feud between religion and science can be compared to the Montague and Capulet relationship – hateful at times, dismissive often, and bridged rarely, often with tragic results for those who try.

A recent article in the journal Science (see Can Science and Religion Get Along?) discussed a controversial panel that aimed to bring together players from both sides in the hopes of starting some sort of dialog. There were cries of foul from both sides before the panel took place, but to me it seems that conversation in general is good as long as both sides come to the table with the right intention – to listen and not just talk. Continue reading

Child development outcomes with same-sex parents

In November 2010, the Pew Research Center released results of a poll that showed that 43% of people agreed with the statement that gay or lesbian couples raising children are bad for society, 41% believe that it doesn’t make a difference, and only 12% saying that they believed it was good for society.

The authors of this paper, a meta-analysis of a number of studies on same-sex parenting, would hope to convince more people to move from a neutral or non-supportive stance to having a positive view by gaining a more accurate idea of the similarities and differences between children raised with a different-sex parents and those raised with same-sex parents.
Continue reading

Those That can not do…Education, teachers and Psychology

I have to admit that before I became an academic, I believed this phrase was true “Those that can not do, teach.” This despite coming from a family of academics. Of course, now that I am on this path, I see that there are many passionate, smart, committed people who could do many other things besides teach and be successful at it. However, there is some truth to this adage, as there is with every adage. Academics tend to write for their own audience and never seem to be able to reach beyond their own peers. Their research often seems to be impractical with no long term goal of application. Many academics have no idea how to “sell” what they discover, and hence people like Malcolm Gladwell can take their research and repurpose it for a popular audience.

On the other hand the areas that academics study serve an enormous purpose for society. If not for research scientists, many people would be ignored and marginalized and many advances would never happen because in the short term, they would seem to yield so little result.

Indeed, that is what I think has happened with teaching. Our society is so focused on big picture, immediate results that we want everything bigger, faster and better, often before it is ready. And this seems to have happened with many of the excellent ideas that have come from psychology with respect to educational interventions. American society wants results now and if we can’t get results then we’re on to the next thing. So funding dries up while a promising intervention is just getting its feet wet.

The  New York Times article this weekend on proven strategies to improve teaching was an important start. Other research points to teacher inquiries whereby teachers meet once a week with each other JUST to discuss teaching. No administration issues, just sharing strategies that work. And then once they adopt the strategies, recognizing that these strategies have changed their student’s abilities. In other words, taking credit for the change, owning that they make a difference in their student’s lives rather than blame others for the student’s inability to learn.

These interventions based on research are important and help society. Without the academics studying education and learning, we would probably still all learn from recitation. Psychology examines how we do things, why we do behave as such, and then searches for ways to do it better or to replicate the success. This is very important. However, what we can do better is to focus on getting the research out to people who can use it in their everyday lives. Looking for partnerships between academics and teachers, academics and parents, academics and administrators.

In addition, and this is a societal problem, we have to remember that change takes time. It can’t happen right away and adjustments will need to be made in order to improve practice. Scale doesn’t have to happen right away. I learned this in business when I ran a small company that grew too quickly — the infrastructure wasn’t there to support the growth and the company fell apart.  This new proposal detailed in the New York Times article today seems it may be too much.

Education interventions should be allowed to take the time they need to perfect methods and to learn ways to communicate effectively their methods. Once this has happened, growth should happen at a slower pace, 5-10% most a year in order to adjust to new concerns and to build a team that can effect the change. It’s no good growing if you don’t have enough trained teachers to do the work.

This change would require patience, willingness to accept failure, and an ability to learn from mistakes and not giving up. It’s not really in the American make-up. But imagine if it was. Perhaps we need some research scientists to study that 🙂

Are there differences at the neural level in the ways that liberals and conservatives process information?

Some theories suggest that conservatives tend to have a more structured and persistent cognitive style, where liberals tend to be more open to ambiguity.  Building on this idea, a recent paper by David Amodio and his colleagues investigated whether liberals and conservatives would show different brain responses when completing a task requiring cognitive control.  They tested this question by recording event related potentials (brain activity) as participants performed what psychologists call a “go-no go task”.  This task involves pressing a button every time an arrow in one direction is shown on a screen, and withholding that response when an arrow in the opposite direction is presented.  Performance on this task can be thought of as a proxy for one’s ability to switch gears, or to inhibit a prepotent response in favor of a conflicting demand.  Results of the investigation suggested that those high in dispositional liberalism showed stronger activity in an area of the brain called the ACC (which has been associated with conflict monitoring) during “no-go” trials (when response inhibition was needed), while conservatives showed less ACC acitivity on “no-go” trials (D. Amodio, Jost, Master, & Yee, 2007).  The authors, therefore, conclude that liberals may have more sensitivity to cues for altering habitual response pattern:
“Taken together, our results are consistent with the view that political
orientation, in part, reflects individual differences in the functioning of
a general mechanism related to cognitive control and self-regulation”  (p. 2).

This is the first study connecting ideology to a basic neurocognitive system of self-regulation, and as such leaves many questions unanswered.  For example, would the results of less conflict monitoring on a go-no go task generalize to the processing of other more important, real-life tasks?  Is the distinction of liberal versus conservative a helpful distinction in this regard, or would it make more sense to consider other personality factors (those who are more or less likely to regulate prepotent responses, independent of political affiliation)?

Why does the ‘Patriotism’ argument work?

“The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and endangering the country.”

Basically, people will fall in line if a) they are scared and b) they are worried they could lose the support of their communities by disagreeing. Building off of this intuition, psychologists have found that when people think about death, their adherence to in-group ideologies increases (Navarette et al., 2004). My guess is that accusing dissenters of lacking patriotism in promoting wars is effective in part because it questions loyalty to the group and references a potential threat. No one wants to risk losing their ties to the group when times are dangerous.

p.s. the quote is from Herman Goering, one of the Nazi officers Gustave Gilbert interviewed at Nuremberg. Check out Gilbert’s book “Nuremberg Diary” for more.

Navarette, C., Kurzban, R., Fessler, D., & Kirkpatrick, L. (2004). Anxiety and Intergroup Bias: Terror Management or Coalitional Psychology? Group Processes and Intergroup Relations, 7, 370-397.

Conservatives have a more balanced moral perspective than Liberals?!

Well, sort of. Traditionally, academics have argued that our sense of right and wrong is based on the harm that might occur or the rights that might be violated as a result of our judgments. But according to Psychologist Jonathan Haidt (2007), people have (at least) five innately prepared moral concerns. Included are sensitivities to harm and fairness, but also respect for authority, preference for ingroup members, and a sense of spiritual purity. Moreover, Haidt has found that as you become more liberal (which academics tend to be), you base moral judgments primarily on concerns with harm and fairness, caring less about authority, who the people involved are, or whether the action is ‘pure’. In contrast, as people become more conservative they tend to rely on all five concerns equally when making moral judgments.  See Haidt giving a talk on this subject to the New Yorker at this link