What can we tell by looking at someone? Can we guess what job they do? Could we gauge how good they are with people and how effective a leader they would make?
Despite how much we believe that we make voting decisions or job offer decisions based on rational analysis the fact remains that we are unconsciously biased by the way people look. As an example let’s think about political elections. US presidential candidates are normally taller than the average American and the taller they are the higher the level of popular vote they are likely to get. Also, the taller they are the more likely they are to be re-elected.
It’s not only height which has an impact, faces do too. Adults can correctly pick the winner of an election campaign from the runner up 70% of the time, just by seeing their photos for a maximum of 100 ms. It’s not just adults either. Children can pick the winner of elections 71% of the time by looking at photographs of their faces.
Is this also seen outside of the political arena? Yes. Male CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are taller than the average American man by an average of 3 inches. Only 14.5% of American men are 6 feet or taller whereas 58% of the Fortune 500 CEOs are. In addition, 30% of the CEOs are actually 6’2″ or taller, compared to 3.9% of the general population.
Taller people are also paid more than shorter people and they receive more social esteem. One study estimated that each extra inch of height was worth over 780 USD per year in salary.
What about facial characteristics in the business world? People rate FSTE 100 CEOs as more successful than a control group when comparing photographs. On average, the FSTE 100 CEOs have wider faces so it seems that we perceive people with wider faces as more competent.
In one study people in the UK were asked to choose which of two US people had a particular job role and they were also asked to rate the confidence which they had in their answer.
The people shown in the photographs had jobs as either CEOs, military generals, American football coaches or politicians. People were able to select which person had a particular job role just from the photographs with a high degree of success, although they had low confidence that their ‘guess’ was right.
There is obviously something deeply irrational going on in our brains. Or perhaps it’s more rational than it appears? Do we select people who are tall and have certain facial characteristics because we falsely believe them to be better at running organisations or do the physical differences actually indicate that they would be better?
Picture from Olivola study.
There are studies which suggest that physical differences can predict performance differences. For example, CEOs with wider faces have been found to run companies which perform 10% better than those with narrower faces. Also, the impact of face shape is not limited to men. People can rate the competence and leadership of female CEOs by looking at their photographs and the results correlate with the success of the companies which they run.
All of the differences are averages and so no conclusion can be drawn for a particular individual. But the question remains, why do we see average differences? One school of thought is that people with wider faces and squarer jaws have higher levels of testosterone and that this also changes their behaviour to make them more competitive and assertive. Another theory is that the extra social esteem which we give to taller people and those with certain facial characteristics means that they believe themselves to be better than average and so change their behaviour accordingly.
I have no satisfactory conclusion to this, except to say that people are strange! Next time you’re interviewing someone or deciding who to vote for just stand back and ask yourself if you are being influenced by height or which one ‘looks’ the most competent. Being aware of the bias at least gives us a chance to address it.