Rob Farley at LGM cites research finding that “men with beards were deemed more credible than those who were clean-shaven.” Tongue in cheek, he then confirms the research by pointing to Paul Krugman (bearded and trustworthy) and Bill Kristol (clean shaven and untrustworthy).
If this is true, contemporary politicians are really losing an opportunity to fool signal constituents of their trustworthiness. Or as the authors of the study put it: “the presence of a beard on the face of candidates could boost their charisma, reliability, and above all their expertise as perceived by voters, with positive effects on voting intention.”
The last Presidential candidate with a beard was Republican Charles Evans Hughes in 1916. Many people think that the last President with a beard was Benjamin Harrison (who lost the Presidency to my namesake in 1892). However, according to Kenneth Crispell and Carlos Gomez’s book on presidential illnesses, Woodrow Wilson grew a beard after his stroke (pg 70 and HT: Modeled Behavior). And ironically, given the research Farley cites, Wilson did so to hide his facial paralysis! So it might not make sense to trust bearded folks - except for Rob that is!
My guess is that this new research is either wrong period (which is unlikely given that there was an era in US history when esteemed figures wore beards) or is temporally/culturally dependent and thus wrong in some times/places, including the US over the last century plus (more likely). I’ll trust the behavior of those who have a real stake in winning over the public - CEO’s, pitchmen, campaign advisors, and politicians just to name a few - over one study (of course, the evidence on pitchmen is mixed given Billy Mays, Norm Abram, and Bob Villa). Thus the politicians who have shunned facial hair are probably not making a mistake, as the research Rob cites suggests they are. As one news story noted:
“People don’t trust candidates with facial hair and it comes down to the simple fact that people think they are hiding,” said Jeffrey Adler, a political consultant in Long Beach, Calif., who has run campaigns for 20 years. “It’s the old body-language paradigm, that they are hiding behind the facial hair. There have been numerous studies. Again and again, voters tend to the photos without facial hair. We always advise clients to lose the facial hair.”
I did a quick perusal of JSTOR and nothing popped – but I bet someone has done research on the question.
Given my culture/time argument, it seems that someone is losing an opportunity to help sell themselves to the populace — the US soldiers in Afghanistan who are forbidden from wearing beards amidst a culture that greatly reveres them. Indeed, allowing soldiers to grow beards would seem to be most consistent with our current COIN doctrine. But as with many things involving the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, what the military preaches and what they allow are sometimes (frequently?) two different things. See here for a story about some soldiers who agree with me. (BTW, there are some US soldiers who are allowed to wear beards; however, it is not the norm even amongst soldiers in the field).