The cliché of the scruffy, left-leaning professor who cares more about their mind than their appearance is commonplace, and in sharp contrast to the image of a snappily dressed, right-leaning politician, striding purposefully to election victory.
But are these stereotypes accurate, and do they reflect the relative attractiveness of the two tribes?
“One could speculate that scholars, given that they tend to be less [concerned with] conforming…do care less about their physical attractiveness,” said Jan-Erik Lönnqvist, a psychologist in the Swedish School of Social Science, University of Helsinki, who has recently published a journal paper on the topic.
But his research suggests that it may not be as simple that, and that perceptions of attractiveness may come down to political leaning: Left v Right.
A previous study has found that politicians on the Right are considered more attractive than those on the Left.
This gloss could be because attractive people enjoy a higher quality of life and so reject egalitarian policies, or it could be that they are selected for political office in part because of their looks.
In their study, “Just because you look good, doesn’t mean you’re right”, published in Personality and Individual Differences, Professor Lönnqvist and colleagues examined whether the same was true in scholarly circles.
Sampling academics who had published in the Claremont Review of Books and First Things (both right-leaning publications) and the New York Review of Books and Humanist magazine (left-leaning publications), the authors collected photographs of 400 scholars (100 from each journal).
Study participants were then asked to rate them on physical attractiveness and perceived economic and social or political orientation. The scholars being graded were also assessed on their level of grooming and the quality of their portrait, in order to control for these factors.
Professor Lönnqvist found that the participants were accurate when it came to guessing political orientation from photographs. While the best-groomed scholars tended to contribute to right-leaning journals, he found that the scholars perceived as most attractive were associated with left-wing politics.
While this research may be a boost in the groves of academe, they also have implications for the men and women who occupy the corridors of power.
It suggests that political conservatives are not inherently more attractive, Professor Lönnqvist said, but that they benefit from a perception of attractiveness during elections.
“This could be because voters on the Right more strongly reward candidates for good looks than voters on the Left,” Professor Lönnqvist told Times Higher Education.
He added: “Right-leaning people are more prone to seek material wealth, and high physical attractiveness, which very much helps in the pursuit of wealth. [This may] push right-leaning people towards seeking more lucrative occupations than those offered by a scholarly career – careers in which they are rewarded for their attractiveness.”
But his conclusion was clear: “Right-leaning people in general are not better looking.”