People Judge Quickly If You’ve Got the Right Face for the Job

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We assume leaders are picked solely for their leadership experience, skills and potential. Yet new research concludes that leaders, particularly males, with the right facial features have an advantage.

Psychologists Christopher Y. Olivola, Dawn L. Eubanks, and Jeffrey B. Lovelace from Carnegie Mellon University, Warwick Business School, and West Point Military Academy published a study in The Leadership Quarterly, which found that participants in their study were very accurate at matching leaders’ faces to their real professions. The researchers have concluded that we may be choosing leaders based on unconscious biases towards certain facial features.

Dawn Eubanks argues, “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….The most plausible explanation, in our view, is that leaders are being selected, at least partly, according to how they look.”

In one of their experiments, 614 British individuals were presented with a series of black and white photos American 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. Each photo was cropped to only show their faces and any highly recognizable faces were removed from the sample.

The results: participants were successful at choosing business leaders, military leaders, and sports leaders. Interestingly, However, there success did not extend to politicians.

The researchers ran a second experiment 929 new British participants who were asked to rate 80 of the leaders’ faces on 15 dimensions, such as, likability, masculinity, trustworthiness.

The results: the leaders chosen by the participants — Army generals and football coaches — from tended to have 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.”

Other Research Studies

  • According to a study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, men with square faces were more likely to be perceived as aggressive, and dominant.
  • People with high cheekbones, wide foreheads, and prominent jaws are seen as being more powerful and in control than people with longer, narrower faces, according to a study published in Psychological Science. Companies headed by people with this face shape were more financially successful than companies with long-faced CEOs according to the researchers.
  • Psychologists John Antonakis and Olaf Dalgas at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland,published a study in the journal Science conducted which shows that young Swiss children can predict based on viewing facial photos only, which candidates are more likely to win elections.
  • Psychologists Charles C. Ballew and Alexander Todorov conducted experiments, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, in which participants have correctly predicted the outcome of elections in the Mexico, Finland, Bulgaria, France, Australia, and Japan, and the share of votes in the U.S. Congress.
  • BBC Future reported that photographs of every single member the United States Congress in 2017 yielded a face that’s good-looking, middle-aged and distinctly masculine.

The History of Facial Analysis

Interpreting facial appearance is a practice that goes back thousuands of year. It was originially termed “physiognomy,” — the belief that a person’s character can be judged from their face.

Eastern cultures embraced this practice seriously. Chinese king, Jianzi of Zhao, believed chose his heirs based on his assessment of their faces, with a favorable conclusion based on large earlobes. Historical documents from China showed emperors with ear lobes than touched their shoulders, and we see this preference in the statues of Buddha.

By the 18th Century, physiognomy or the study of faces had become something of a pseudoscience. Johann Lavater a Swiss pastor analyzed thousands of faces and linked them with specific personality characterisitcs , which he published in his bestselling book, Physiognomischen Fragmente.

Appearing presidential became crucial at the earliest stages of the American Republic. For example, portraits of president George Washington were altered to enhance the arch of his forehead.

Politicians are no less face-image conscious. According to the Washington Post, plastic surgeons and dermatologists have lots of clients who are politicians.

The Speed of First Impressions

A study published in Social Psychological and Personality Science from researchers at the University of York reveals just how quickly we form first impressions. “Facial impressions are are consequential, for instance, predicting government election results and influencing romantic preferences,” explained study author Jennifer K. South Palomares.

In his book, Face Value, Princeton University’s Alexander Todorov reports that people can form a first impression from a person’s face in as little as 30 to 40 milliseconds.

Todorov explains, “We immediately form impressions from appearance, we agree on these impressions, and we act on them.” That’s why CEOs who are who may appear to be more competent get hired, and it’s why political candidates who look more competent based on their facial images, win elections, Todorov argues.


Whether we like it or not, and whether it’s less a case of cause and effect than correlation, in Western culture, which is highly influenced by media and advertising, research shows first impression matters and because of the predominance of media which favors facial images, we often come to conclusions based on that image. What’s disconcerting is the bias and stereotypes that are formed based upon those facial images.

Read my latest book available on Amazon:Toxic Bosses: Practical Wisdom for Developing Wise, Moral and Ethical Leaders,




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

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Ray Williams

Ray Williams

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

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