Does my campaign look lame in this?

The contenders » Michael has good hair but a smarmy smile, Ken's a charmer but the suit sags: forget the issues, looks are what count in the Conservative beauty contest
Click to follow

It may be flippant, not to say over-generous, to describe the Tory leadership race as a beauty contest, but that doesn't stop it from being essentially true. What really matters above all in this age of television is image: how a politician looks and acts, rather than what he or she thinks, and says.

So as Conservative Party members prepare to elect their new leader, they and the contenders – Michael Portillo, Michael Ancram, Iain Duncan Smith, David Davis, and possibly Ken Clarke – will have to bear one thing in mind. The new Tory leader has to be like Miss World. He will have to pass the same kind of tests: look good on television, walk in a straight line, answerquestions with aplomb, be eager to travel and help sick children.

The politicians themselves have created this situation. They have stressed their role as managers rather than as communicators of ideas. They have encouraged the production of near-wordless campaign documents and broadcasts. No wonder no one's listening. "We form a lot of our views on the basis of behaviour signals, because of the empty speechifying of politicians," says Philippa Davies, a motivational psychologist and adviser to the Labour Party.

While it may be important to know where politicians such as William Hague and Charles Kennedy stand on, say, road pricing, it actually seems more important that we know how they handle a crowd of schoolchildren or a heckler.

Personality is far from being politically negligible. In the US, politics has become a crowded area of study for psychologists. As Aubrey Immelman, professor of political psychology at St John's University, Minnesota, puts it: "It is the key to knowing how that candidate will act, think and relate to others now and in the future, on the campaign trail and at the pinnacle of political power, in good times and in bad."

When we see a potential prime minister, or even a Tory leader, on the screen, we are making an instant judgement. Mary Spillane, an image consultant and makeover adviser to politicians, says: "You have to get the sense of what it would be like to go for a beer with this guy." She was shocked by some of Hague's over-controlled performances during the election: "He would be attacked and called a racist, and he would stall, and answer the question five minutes later. But you don't do that." What we want, she says, is "unedited reactions" from politicians in such circumstances. "If we can't see passion or anger when we get close to the bone, we don't trust them."

Spillane says that personal demeanour can be improved, but not faked. That is supported by the academics. According to Immelman, "style is important because it is the most easily discernible, external mark of character and personality. It's the one thing that a candidate cannot spin, at least not for any length of time."

Davies says that politicians appeal when they fit an archetype. Blair, she maintains, was a public schoolboy with a tendency to do-gooding. But Hague presented such mixed signals that we could not get to grips with him. Even Ann Widdecombe would have made more sense: "part Cruella de Ville, part Virgin Queen".

Academic psychology has shown that such impressions work in a particular way. If you like a candidate's politics, you don't care what he or she looks like. But if you don't trust the politics, good looks and a likeable manner can persuade you. Likeable Mr Blair brought non-believers into his tent. But Mr Hague, marooned on Tory island, was not pretty enough to escape.

The psychology of attraction is not simple or conscious. We want a person to be like us in terms of race, sex and assumed sexual orientation. Hence all those rumblings about Mr Portillo's lack of children. But none of that is as important as whether we find that person attractive. It is not a sexual matter. The elements of attractiveness are agreed by both sexes and by all races. We value symmetry and averageness. Both are seen as indicators of genetic health. We like them in a mate, and in a leader.

Then there is what's called dominance. Certain physical characteristics are seen as indicators of power. It is not that such people are better in a fight. It's that they look as though they would be. Height is the obvious example. As Steven Pinker, the experimental psychologist, puts it: "Sheer height is surprisingly potent in a species that calls itself the rational animal." Tall men get better jobs, earn more, are promoted more frequently, and get elected to important jobs. The Tories will choose a tall man. Hague was above average height, and only an inch shorter than Blair, but he somehow managed to look like a serious-minded toddler.

But there are dominant facial features, too: heavy lower jaws, pronounced brow ridges and eyebrows, prominent cheekbones and receding hairlines. All reflect high testosterone levels, associated with competitiveness, if not aggression. Think Leonid Brezhnev, Denis Healey and hawk-eyed Captain Ashdown. Women leaders are problematical. Put bluntly, women are more attractive (for mating purposes) the less they resemble men. But the less they resemble men, the less they display the dominant features of leaders. Evolution is not liberal-minded.

Mrs Thatcher, however, made her own rules. Clearly dominant, she was also described by many otherwise sane men as having a powerful erotic presence. Perhaps the Tories should bring her back. Age is attractive in a leader. Societies under stress turn to elderly leaders: Churchill, De Gaulle, Reagan.

The point about attractiveness is that it is more influential than it should be. Immelman describes a "halo effect" in which "people assume that attractive individuals have better personalities and are more well-adjusted, have higher occupational or social status, higher intelligence, and are more dominant."

We demand authenticity, but some kinds of authentic behaviour communicate better than others. If introverts and thinkers want to win elections, they will have to work harder. "Politicians have got to have great acting skills," says Davies, "so that they are able to put their mind 100 per cent on the job." She insists Tony Blair is actually an introvert who has "mastered a lot of extrovert skills".

Spillane says that "about 60 per cent of people in business are introverted by nature – but business is an extrovert arena". Like politics. The sliding scale from extroversion to introversion is near the heart of personality. That does not change, she insists, "but we can all learn how to perform". And for all those Tory candidates, there's still time.