Having a face that fits a stereotype might be an advantage in certain fields, such as business and sports, a new study suggests.
The findings are based on a series of experiments designed to find out how well people could match a face to a profession.
The results: participants could successfully categorize leaders in business, sports, and the military based solely on their faces. The same was not true for politicians, which participants found more challenging.
Dawn Eubanks of Warwick Business School argues that this simple judgement might heavily influence the actual leadership selection process by organizations.
“The most plausible explanation, in our view, is that leaders are being selected, at least partly, according to how they look,” says Eubanks, an associate professor of behavioral science and strategy.
“The research suggests the ideal face of a leader extends beyond fitting the correct ‘type’ but needs to fit the industry or profession as well.
“In fact, just having facial features that make one look like a good generic leader might not be sufficient to reach the most prestigious leadership positions in a domain; one may also need to possess facial features that stereotypically ‘fit’ the leaders in that domain.
“These findings are particularly noteworthy for those involved in leadership selection decisions. It is important to not let implicit biases get in the way and ensure that there is a rigorous selection process in place.”
Politician or CEO?
For the study published in Leadership Quarterly, researchers presented individuals with black and white photos of two leaders in several sequences. For example they may have been shown a politician and a CEO and then asked to select the CEO.
These images only showed the cut-out face of each individual–no hair–in order to reduce cues that might give away the domain that a leader worked in.
In total, 325 US CEOs, 64 US army generals, 66 state governors elected between 1996 and 2006, and 43 American football coaches were used. Highly recognizable individuals were removed from the sample. The 614 British-based respondents were also asked to rate their confidence in their answers.
“Despite a pessimistic outlook from participants on their estimations, we found the mean accuracy levels significantly exceeded chance for most leadership categories,” says Eubanks.
Warm and attractive
“The fact that participants were able to categorize these leaders despite not recognizing their faces and that these leaders were drawn from another country is noteworthy. It suggests that facial stereotypes about business, military, and sport leaders may cross national and cultural borders.
“Interestingly, these same participants were not able to categorize political leaders, which suggests politicians may not have unique, distinguishable facial features that reveal their leadership domain.”
In order to identify if there might be specific facial characteristics representative of leaders from these industries, a new set of 929 participants were asked to rate 80 of the leaders’ faces on 15 basic dimensions, such as trustworthiness and likability.
“Our results indicate that one might be able to distinguish military and sports leaders from business and political leaders by evaluating how warm and attractive they look from their faces, since military and sports leaders were evaluated as looking less attractive and warm than the latter two,” says Eubanks.
“Stereotypical looking business leaders were evaluated as having particularly competent faces, and military leaders were identified as having more masculine and mature faces than the other types of leaders.”
Christopher Olivola of Carnegie Mellon University and Jeffrey Lovelace of Penn State were coauthors of the study.
Source: University of Warwick