Department of Political Science

Is a Disease Leader Attractive? Six Tests of whether the COVID-19 Pandemic Affected Follower Preferences for Attractiveness, Health and other Traits in Political and Non-Political Leaders

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Attractive political candidates receive more votes on Election Day compared to their less attractive competitors. One well-cited theoretical account for this attractiveness effect (White et al., 2013) holds that it reflects an adaptive psychological response to disease threats. Voters are predicted to upregulate preferences for attractiveness because it constitutes a cue to health. The global COVID-19 pandemic constitutes an ecologically relevant and realistic setting for further testing this prediction. Here, we report the results from six tests of the prediction based on two large and nationally representative surveys conducted in Denmark (n = 3297) at the outbreak of the pandemic and one year later. Utilizing experimental techniques, validated individual difference measures of perceived disease threat and geographic data on COVID-19 severity, we do not find that disease threats like the COVID-19 pandemic upregulate preferences for attractive and healthy political or non-political leaders. Instead, respondents display heightened preferences for health in socially proximate relations (i.e. colleagues). Moreover, individuals who react aversively to situations involving risks of pathogen transmission (scoring high in Germ Aversion) report higher importance of a wide range of leadership traits, rather than for health and attractiveness in particular. Results are discussed in relation to evolutionary accounts of leadership and followership.

Original languageEnglish
Article number101574
JournalThe Leadership Quarterly
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2022

    Research areas

  • COVID-19, Disease threat, Evolutionary psychology, Followership, Leadership, Political leaders

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