The facial displays of leaders

Emma Davies (Oxford Brookes University) reports from the Society's Annual Conference.

As we watch the American political parties select candidates to run for President, it appears that many are asking a similar question about leadership; just how do some people get elected to positions of power? A symposium, convened by Carl Senior of Aston University, and sponsored by Aston University Behavioural Insights Group, aimed to shed some light on this important and sometimes puzzling question, by focusing on the role of individual facial features.

The first speaker was Brian Spisak from VU Amsterdam who, like the other speakers in the symposium, had experienced corporate life and the challenges of different kinds of leaders, before returning to academia, driven, in part, to understand how and why George W. Bush was re-elected in 2004. Spisak’s research focuses on understanding the broad question of ‘what is leadership’. He sees it as an adaptive process whereby different individuals may emerge as leaders depending on the types of issues faced by an organisation or society. For example, different characteristics of leaders may be required in peacetime compared to wartime and the age of a leader is also important. Younger leaders may be seen as wanting to gain status, display stamina or bring about change, thus may not be preferred in peacetime, whereas older leaders might be preferred when stability or experience is value, such as times of war. The presidential elections in 2004, for example, were characterised by messages about conflict with terrorists following 9-11. Spisak explains that this climate of war and fear might explain why the electorate chose Bush, as he was seen as experienced at a time when it felt important to maintain the status quo.

Another explanation for Bush’s re-election could be that voters saw his facial features as more masculine than those of his opponent, John Kerry. Spisak, and Dawn Eubanks, the next speaker in the symposium, cited a 2009 study by Antonakis and Dalgas [http://digest.bps.org.uk/2009/02/we-judge-our-leaders-on-how-they-look.html ] in which children aged 5-13 were shown photographs of real candidates in a Swiss election and asked ‘who would be the captain of your ship?’ The children selected the actual winning candidates with 64 per cent accuracy, suggesting that the way a person looks is important for their success as a leader, and this is recognised at a young age. Eubanks, who is based at Warwick Business School, is broadly interested in things that leaders do that can cause problems and conflict. In this symposium, she presented the findings of a study that tested whether people could determine the specific domain of leadership that a person belonged to just from looking at their facial features. The study used pictures of military generals, CEOs, US state governors and American football coaches, with contextual features removed.  Participants were able to perform well above chance when identifying the work domain of the CEOs, military and sports leaders. However this was not the case for the state governors, which Eubanks and her colleagues suggest may be due to leaders in the other domains coming up through from the ranks of their professions and being selected by other members of the same group, whereas politicians are selected by the electorate.

Kirsten Knowles, the final speaker in the symposium, conducted her research during the Scottish independence referendum to discover whether there were differences in the preference for masculine or feminine faces between yes and no voters. Research suggests that masculine features are associated with dominance and dishonesty, and these features are preferred in times of war or conflict, whereas feminine features are more likely to be rated as subservient and trustworthy.  Knowles questioned whether the Scottish referendum would be perceived as war or peacetime, in terms of facial preferences and whether there would be differences between those who had decided to vote no or yes to Scottish independence. In her study, all 163 Scottish voters consistently picked masculine over feminine faces in a selection task. Overall, there were no differences between the male and female participants who were no voters, however, an interesting finding emerged from the yes voters. Whereas the male yes voters selected masculine or feminine faces at chance level, the female yes voters chose faces in the same pattern as no voters. A number of reasons for this finding were discussed; perhaps because the faces were all male, they were perceived as more attractive overall. Another explanation is that women might believe that Scotland would be worse off economically if it were to be independent. 

What became clear during this lively symposium was that we need to be much more aware of our biases towards specific facial features when selecting our leaders. Other facial features such as symmetry, health and attractiveness are also important in determining who becomes a leader. The symposium highlights the need for rigorous selection processes, whatever domain of leadership is under discussion. However, perhaps this research may go some way to explaining some of the recent victories and losses in the race for the American presidency, which to some of us, seem both surprising and shocking.

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