People are surprisingly skilled at matching leaders’ faces to their real professions, according to a new study published in The Leadership Quarterly.
The findings suggest that we may be choosing leaders, at least in part, based on unconscious biases towards certain facial features. Even further, people tend to choose a leader whose face more closely “matches” that particular industry or occupation.
“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,” said study author Dawn L. Eubanks, Ph.D.
“The most plausible explanation, in our view, is that leaders are being selected, at least partly, according to how they look.”
In one experiment, 614 British participants were shown a series of black and white photos of unfamiliar American leaders from various professions including business, the military, government, and sports: headshots of CEOs from the 500 largest U.S. companies, U.S. Army generals, U.S. state governors elected between 1996 and 2006, and professional and college football coaches.
Only photos of Caucasian males were included, and any highly recognizable faces were removed from the sample.
Participants were assigned a target category (such as football coaches), and each trial they had to choose which of two faces they thought was the football coach. They then rated how confident they were about the accuracy of their guess on a zero to 100 percent scale.
Although the participants didn’t have much confidence in their guesses, they were significantly better than chance at matching leaders to their actual professions merely by looking at their face.
Participants were generally successful at picking out business leaders, military leaders, and sports leaders. Interestingly, this ability did not extend to politicians; when trying to identify political leaders, the participants’ accuracy was no better than chance.
The researchers conducted a second experiment to determine whether there are particular facial characteristics that people associate with different kinds of leaders.
A new group of 929 British participants was asked to rate 80 of the leaders’ faces on 15 dimensions, such as trustworthiness, masculinity, and likability. They were shown a single face and asked to rate each face using a sliding scale for a single trait. So some participants only rated faces for trustworthiness, while other participants only rated faces on attractiveness.
The findings showed that leaders from particular professions tended to have facial features in common: Army generals and football coaches were rated as having more masculine faces, while politicians and CEOs had higher ratings for warmth and competence.
“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,” the researchers write. “It suggests that facial stereotypes about business, military, and sport leaders may cross national and cultural borders.”
The researchers note that just because a face may appear warm or competent, however, does not mean that the person is actually trustworthy or competent. Instead, these ratings suggest that people may be choosing leaders in part because of stereotypes and biases towards certain traits.
“For example, if everyone shares the belief that facial warmth is a valid indicator of actual warmth and, moreover, that warmth is a liability in military leadership, this could bias the promotion process by favoring military leaders who happen to have more ‘cold’-looking faces,” writes study author Christopher Y. Olivola, Ph.D., and colleagues.
“This dynamic would lead to the top military leadership being populated by individuals who are less warm in appearance.”