Masculine Faces Seen As More Competent

Ray Williams
6 min readMar 14, 2022
Image: Public Domain

Faces that are seen as competent are also perceived as more masculine, according to research published in Psychological Science.

“Our research sheds light on the pernicious gender bias in how we perceive others — we judge masculine looking people as competent, a judgment that can affect our leadership choices,” explains psychology researcher DongWon Oh of Princeton University, first author on the research.

Oh and co-authors Elinor A. Buck and Alexander Todorov were interested in identifying the “visual ingredients” that influence how we perceive competence from individuals’ appearance.

To do this, the researchers used a computational model of competence that they had established in previous research. Using participant ratings of many different faces, the researchers identified the parameters that were most reliably associated with impressions of competence. They then built a model that allowed them to digitally alter face stimuli according to these specific parameters, producing faces that varied in perceived competence.

In one online experiment, the researchers used this model to present participants with face stimuli that varied in competence. Some participants rated how competent the faces were, while others rated their attractiveness.

The results showed that the faces designed to look more competent were rated as such, and they were also rated as more attractive, consistent with the “attractiveness halo” found in previous research.

But Oh and colleagues suspected that there were probably other components of appearance that signal competence. “Using the computational methods we developed for visualizing appearance stereotypes, we can literally remove the attractiveness of the competent-looking faces,” says Oh. “We can then test whether ‘competent’ faces still appear competent and inspect what visual properties other than attractiveness drive the competence impressions.”

Using this new model, the researchers found that participants perceived more competent faces as more confident and more masculine, impressions that are not explained by attractiveness.

Another online experiment revealed a clear gender bias: When participants were asked to identify faces as either or female, they tended to rate more competent faces as male and less competent faces as female.

Together, these findings suggest that competence and masculinity are correlated components of first impressions based on appearance, the researchers postulated.

To investigate whether this relationship operates similarly for male faces and female faces, the researchers manipulated photorealistic images of male and female faces so that they varied in masculinity. They randomly assigned 250 online participants to rate the competence of either male faces or female faces.

Again, the data suggested a gender bias in first impressions: As male faces increased in masculinity, so did their perceived competence. For female faces, this relationship only held up to a point, after which more masculine female faces were actually perceived as less competent.

This is noteworthy because impressions of competence influence who we choose as leaders: Research has shown that individuals with more competent-looking faces are more likely to be elected as high-ranking politicians such as US senators and as the heads of large companies.

“Problematically, how competent someone appears does not guarantee their actual competence,” Oh notes. “Needless to say, these gender biases pose a threat to social justice, creating unfair environments for everyone.”

This research was supported by other research. A study by Fangfang Wen and colleagues published in Evolutionary Psychology, found men with more masculine facial features were viewed as more competent.

Facial Types for Leaders

Picking a leader should be about assessing the experience and skills an individual can bring to the table, but a new study finds that getting ahead may be easier for people with the right facial features.

In a study published in The Leadership Quarterly, psychological scientists from Carnegie Mellon University, Warwick Business School, and West Point Military Academy found that people were surprisingly good at matching leaders’ faces to their real professions. Study authors Christopher Y. Olivola, Dawn L. Eubanks, and Jeffrey B. Lovelace suggest that we may be choosing leaders, at least in part, based on unconscious biases towards certain facial features.

“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,” says Eubanks. “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 individuals were presented with a series of black and white photos of unfamiliar American leaders from various professions including business, the military, government, and sports.

The photo sets were made up of headshots of CEOs from the 500 largest US companies, US Army generals, US state governors elected between 1996 and 2006, and professional and college football coaches. Each photo was cropped and standardized so that only the face of the individual was shown, and only photos of Caucasian males were included. Any highly recognizable faces were removed from the sample.

Participants were assigned a target category — say, 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 0–100% scale.

Although people 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. However, this ability did not extend to politicians; when participants were asked to identify political leaders, their accuracy was no better than chance.

To find out whether there are particular facial characteristics that people associate with different kinds of leaders, the researchers ran a second experiment. A new set of 929 British participants was asked to rate 80 of the leaders’ faces on 15 dimensions, such as trustworthiness, masculinity, and likability.

In each trial, participants were shown a single face and asked to rate each face using a sliding scale for a single dimension. So some participants only rated faces for trustworthiness, while other participants only rated faces on attractiveness.

Sure enough, the researchers found 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 caution that just because a face may receive high ratings for a characteristic like warmth or competence 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 Olivola and colleagues. “This dynamic would lead to the top military leadership being populated by individuals who are less warm in appearance.”


This research points to an ongoing problem in the recruitment and selection of leaders: we continue to select men with masculine looking facial features (and sometimes overt masculine behaviors) as our leaders, continuing the reinforcement of hypermasculinity and gender bias.

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Ray Williams

Author/ Executive Coach-Helping People Live Better Lives and Serve Others