If elections could be won on looks alone then Internet-Mana leader Laila Harre might just be our next prime minister, according to new research from Auckland University.

Researchers surveyed a group of over 400 US citizens who had no prior knowledge of the New Zealand candidates in the running.

The group were shown a series of mugshots and asked to rate the leaders on a scale of 0 to 6 in four criteria groups - attractiveness, trustworthiness, competence and likeability.

Gallery: The 11 candidates shown to participants


Mobile users click here to view the gallery.

Lead researcher Prof Will Hayward says overall, the results were fairly close to how New Zealanders rank the party leaders, with the exception of Harre.

The gap between her and the others is significant, he says.

"You would have to wonder what would happen if she was given the same exposure and air time as the two main party leaders," he said.

However, the results do back the nice guy image of current prime minister John Key - he's seen as more attractive and competent than Labour leader David Cunliffe.

"We tend to attribute positive traits to people we find attractive and that appears to be the case here. Key stands out as being seen as more competent and attractive than Cunliffe and that gives him a big advantage before he has even opened his mouth," says Lecturer in Political Psychology Dr Danny Osborne.

Read more:
Interactive: the ageing of John Key

Peters may have a face that looks as if it's launched a thousand campaigns, however participants rated him third after Harre and Key in terms of competency.

"It is pretty interesting that he doesn't rate particularly highly on most of the categories, yet is still viewed as highly competent; ultimately, he has the face that people can see being a political leader, even if they don't judge him as trustworthy or likeable," Prof Hayward says.

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters. Photo / Dean Purcell

Peters ranked bottom of the list for perceived trustworthiness and likeability.

Conservative's leader Colin Craig netted mixed results, rating well on attractiveness and likeability but sitting second to bottom on competence and trustworthiness.

Conservative Party leader, Colin Craig. Photo / Wairarapa Times-Age

The survey also asked US participants to rate the candidates in the key seat of Epsom. Going on appearances alone, the news is not so good for Act candidate David Seymour. While National candidate Paul Goldsmith and Labour candidate Michael Wood are neck and neck when judged solely on appearance, Seymour is consistently rated as the least competent out of the three candidates.

According to Professor Hayward research done overseas shows that judgements based on looks alone can often surprisingly line up with actual outcomes.

Of course, voters will still have to consider more than just how candidates look, he says.

"But we predict that Act may have a harder time winning the seat this election than in 2011, simply based on their choice of a candidate whose appearance doesn't inspire confidence."

The Politics of Appearance

11 NZ political candidates rated on a scale of 0-6 in four categories (The rating represents the mean score out of six)

- www.nzherald.co.nz