It’s long been believed in China that you can tell what sort of person someone is just by studying the shape of their face. In fact the idea has been around for more than 2,000 years. The complex system of face reading developed by Gui-Gu Tze, who lived around 250 BC, was based on the belief that there are five main types of face, each relating to one of the five elements of traditional Chinese thought: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water.
But dismissing face reading (or physiognomy) as a pseudo-science might be to do it a disservice. After all, extrapolating someone’s mood or emotions from their facial expressions is something human beings do all the time. So perhaps physiognomy is simply an extension of an innate ability we all possess. A further suggestion that there’s more to physiognomy than meets the eye as arrived in the form of some intriguing new research from academics at Carnegie Mellon University and Pennsylvania State University in the US and Warwick Business School in the UK, which found evidence that leaders in certain fields reach their positions in part because the shape of their face fits the stereotype of their profession.
In a study designed to find out how well people could place which industry leaders worked in from their face alone, the researchers found that people could successfully categorise the leaders in business, sport and the military but found politicians more difficult to identify.
“Our findings imply that within business, military and sport, individuals who achieve the highest positions of leadership share common facial features that distinguish them from leaders in other domains,” said Dr Dawn Eubanks, of Warwick Business School.
“The most plausible explanation, in our view, is that leaders are being selected, at least partly, according to how they look.”
For their study, Dr Eubanks and collaborators Christopher Olivola, of Carnegie Mellon University and Jeffrey Lovelace, of Pennsylvania State University, showed individuals 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.
In total, 325 US CEOs, 64 US army generals, 66 state governors elected between 1996 and 2006 and 43 American football coaches were used, with photos of anyone particularly recognisable removed from the experiment. The photographs were also manipulated to remove the hair of each individual and only show their cut-out face, so minimising the chances of any leaving any hints as to what field the leader worked in.
“Despite a pessimistic outlook from participants on their estimations, we found the mean accuracy levels significantly exceeded chance for most leadership categories,” Dr Eubanks said - although this wasn’t the case for politicians. .
Moreover, she added, the fact that the 600 British participants were able to categorise these leaders despite the fact that they were drawn from another country suggests that facial stereotypes about business, military and sporting leaders may cross national and cultural borders. Politicians, on the other hand, seem not to have the same unique or distinguishable facial features.
“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. That is, leaders may benefit not just from having competent or attractive looking faces, but also from having facial features that ‘fit’ a certain stereotype uniquely associated with their particular domain,” Dr Eubanks said
“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.”
In another phase of the research, a new set of 929 participants were asked to rate 80 of the leaders’ faces on 15 basic dimensions, such as trustworthiness and likeability, to see whether there might be specific facial characteristics that identify leaders from these industries.
Dr Eubanks said: “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.
“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.”
The many (distinctive) faces of leadership: Inferring leadership domain from facial appearance, was first published in The Leadership Quarterly.