Canadian Prime Minster, real-life Disney prince, and casual quantum computing genius Justin Trudeau knows how to flaunt what he’s got. Photos of the tattooed dreamboat striking yoga poses and boxing shirtless litter the most heart-eyed corners of the internet. Trudeau is currently on the cover of GQ — as the “suave Canadian leader dude” — and scheduled to box for the press at New York’s famed Gleason Gym as part of an American good will/good looking tour. A master of the “halo effect,” Trudeau seems to be betting that his face and body make him seem like a good leader. Smart boy.
The idea behind the halo effect is that we assume people who are good at one thing — in Trudeau’s case, being ridiculously good-looking — are good, by extension, at pretty much everything else. It’s a phenomenon psychologist Sam Sommers, together with co-author L. Jon Wertheim, discuss in the book This is Your Brain on Sports, explaining how the halo effect is responsible for the NFL’s abundance of attractive quarterbacks. Justin Trudeau is the Tom Brady of politics.
Because the reasoning behind it is often illogical, psychologists classify the phenomenon as a cognitive bias. That Brady is actually a good quarterback is mostly coincidence, though it could be argued that he received more training earlier on because he was perceived to be talented. The same could be said of Trudeau, who, as the handsome and probably great-smelling son of another beloved Canadian PM, Pierre Trudeau, would have gotten a lot of attention and access. Of course, there is a possibility that his skills as a leader are just innate.
Still, science can predict who we’re likely to fall for, politically. There are plenty of studies showing evidence that we’re suckers for hot and physically fit leaders, perhaps explaining why we fall into the halo effect trap in the first place. A 2015 study from the University of California Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, for example, found that muscular men were perceived to be better leaders than physically weak ones. Strength, here, was key — not just physical attractiveness, which has been shown by multiple studies to be a predictor of high social status. Likewise, in another study published in the Journal of Managerial Psychology in 2002, researchers from Colorado observed that senior-level executives that exercised regularly were rated more highly as leaders by their peers.
What science is telling us is that we are pretty shallow when electing our leaders — but that doesn’t mean we necessarily elect the wrong people, either. It just means we should be hyper-aware of the distinction between “hot” and “competent.” Whether or not his ambitious political plans actually pan out, J.T. knows how to convince his public that he’s good at what he does: All he needs to do is scoop up a couple of Syrian babies while revealing his throbbing forearms or charm the pants off Barry O with a dashing smile and a swoop of his majestic mop. In a sense, maybe Trudeau is a stellar politician: Because what is leadership, after all, than manipulating the opinions of your followers?