For all his popularity with tea party conservatives and libertarians, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky will never be able to establish enough trust with American voters to win the presidency, should he run, because of his tousled hair, psychologists and campaign strategists say.
"Rand Paul's tousled hair is not presidential, it's not masculine," says Ronald Friedman, a psychologist at Columbia University who has looked extensively at what people's hair styles say about them. "Even worse, Paul uses a styling gel to get his tousled look, so he faces a double hit with voters. Not only do voters see tousled hair as a lack of strength, but his use of gel makes him seem vain. So, it's not a good combination."
Both men and women are mistrustful of men who make their interest in their hair obvious, says Harvard psychologist Mark Weiland. "Even today it's not socially acceptable for men to demonstrate vanity in that way," he says. "Men are supposed to be unconcerned about their physical appearance, particularly with respect to their hair. A real man doesn't get his hair styled; he gets it cut, preferably at a barber shop, not a hair salon. Even with the rise of men's grooming products, skin creams, and cosmetics, the great middle of America still believes personal styling is a woman's thing."
"For men, hair gel is associated with two things," says Brandon Mills, a professor of psychology at Purdue University, "vanity and mistrustfulness. In the movies, the hero rarely has gel in his hair. Have you noticed that? The villain often does. A real male hero has too many important matters to deal with to concern himself with his hair. Look at James Bond. Women go wild over him. He looks great, even after being chased and shot at, and his hair is never gelled, and it's certainly not tousled. Good-looking, manly men just don't concern themselves with their hair."
Research has been done that shows both men and women tend not to trust a man who has gel in his hair. In one experiment, University of Pennsylvania researchers recruited 40 college students to participate in what they said was a study of teaching effectiveness, but in reality was to look at a man's use of hair gel on social attitudes. In the experiment, a man was given material to "teach" to the participants in three separate sessions. The man went through the "class" in the exact same way and said the exact same thing each time. The only difference was in his hair. For one class, he had no hair gel, for another, he had some hair gel, and for the third, he had gobs of it. The results were surprising in how stark the participants' responses were: the version of the man with no hair gel was overwhelmingly perceived as the more effective teacher, and the version of him with the most hair gel was perceived as the least effective.
"Culturally, we still associate men with slick-backed hair as devious," says Friedman of Columbia University. "No doubt Rand Paul's hair won't hurt him with the so-called metrosexual vote---that's the vote of young, urban men who downplay their masculinity---but for many other demographics, including many women demographics, his hair is a deal breaker."
Campaign strategists say it's a surprising fact about politics that people to a great degree vote for candidates on gut feelings that often have as much to do with the candidates' looks as their positions. "It's not that looks overwhelm positions, but it reinforces either positive or negative feelings we have about a person" says Ray Culverstone, a political strategist who has worked on dozens of local, state, and federal races, most recently the losing 2012 presidential bid of former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. "You start with the candidate's positions: do we fundamentally agree with one another? If the answer is yes, how strongly you support the candidate is tied in part to whether the candidate looks the part. When you have candidates with more or less the same views, personal style becomes very important."
Culverstone says he's convinced Romney lost to Barack Obama because of his use of hair gel. "I actually recommended to Mitt that he stop putting gel in his hair, but he is set in his ways and wouldn't consider it. But I think one of the reasons many people never really warmed to him, even many Republicans, was because his use of hair gel made him seem slightly less trustworthy than Obama, who, of course, doesn't wear his hair long enough to make the use of gel an issue. Ronald Reagan is an exception to this, of course, but he was older, from a generation that grew up on hair grease, plus he was an actor, so people already understood that he was just playing a role to some extent."
So, will Paul's hair doom his presidential aspirations? The answer appears to be yes, unless he decides soon to nix the gel and start running a comb through his hair to get rid of that tousled look. "Right now he looks a little fruity, to be perfectly honest with you," says Friedman. "I think the United States is ready for a gay president, but it's not ready for a fruity president."