As politicians gear up for the 2020 elections, presidential hopefuls such as Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, and Bernie Sanders are likely getting the same advice from their image advisers: Lose the eyeglasses. Conventional wisdom contends that glasses make a candidate look weak and old.
New research strongly suggests that candidates should ignore that advice. It finds that American voters are more likely to support a political candidate who wears glasses than one who does not.
Eyewear "seems to offer politicians an advantage over their competitors, at least in Western cultures, without any real drawbacks," writes a research team led by Alexandra Fleischmann of the University of Cologne.
The findings reflect the social tendency to associate glasses with high intelligence. The effect is strongest among political liberals, which may explain why glasses didn't help Republican presidential contenders Jeb Bush and Rick Perry in 2016.
In the journal Social Psychology, the researchers describe seven focused studies. In the first and most basic, 203 Americans recruited on Amazon's Mechanical Turk were shown 16 pairs of politicians and asked whom they would vote for.
Half of the pairs consisted of one person wearing glasses, and another person of the same gender who was not wearing them. Participants indicated their choice using a seven-point scale, from "definitely politician A" to "definitely politician B."
"Participants preferred politicians who wore glasses over those without," they report.
A series of follow-up studies replicated those results, and offered some intriguing nuances. In one study, "the more participants identified as liberal, the more they showed the glasses effect. This was the case regardless of whether the politician was described as a Democrat or Republican."
In another, "participants strongly voted for politicians from their own party," the researchers write. "However, they were less likely to do so when the politician from the other party was wearing glasses."
Additional research found that, while ratings of personal warmth were unaffected by eyewear, "Americans rated politicians with glasses as more intelligent than politicians without." To put it simply, glasses signal smarts, and are thus an appealing sign to voters who prize intelligence in a candidate.
The researchers offer two caveats: This effect was not found among voters in India; it seems glasses have different, less-positive connotations in that culture. It also did not hold true when American participants were told the nation was facing a possible war—a scenario that, in many minds, calls more for a strong leader than for an egghead.
So the optimal scenario for a bespectacled candidate is to lay out a persuasive case that the nation's problems are enormously complicated, and thus require someone with a sharp mind to solve them. Then they can sit back and let their glasses project the required brilliance.
In life as in eyewear, framing is everything.