A Sideways View

New stirrings in business psychology

Photography and Power

The narcisissm of politicians and CEOs.

It is clearly not only egocentric and emotionally unregulated adolescents who obsess over photographs of themselves. Politicians and business tycoons seem just as concerned about their photographic images, driven by a heady mixture of subclinical narcissism and avaricious PR consultants. Maybe pictures do paint a thousand words.

The ‘selfie story’ at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service is a good example. There we saw bored world leaders amusing themselves with the taking of photographs, mainly of their own visages, on their mobile phones. These are the same leaders who know the power of the photograph to enhance and wreck careers.

They know about ‘paparazzi-power’; of being caught behaving in a way ‘not becoming’ to their real selves. Some have small armies of people designed to prevent others taking photographs, while equally being very sympathetic to the chosen few, whose work is then usually ‘approved’ by the appropriate committee.

One study entitled “It is all about me” (Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol 52), concerned with narcissism among CEOs, investigated the number and size of CEO photos in the annual report. This was an unobtrusive measure of the bold, exhibitionistic traits that serve CEOs so well. And yes, the more narcissistic they were, the more the photos, which were also bigger and more complementary.

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Things to consider when posing for a business photograph.

1. What to wear? Perhaps we get a hint from our politicians. A blue or black suits, unpatterned tie, white shirt. The tie can sometimes be used to leak party allegiance. Some politicans favours the yellow/gold of their party, other sober dark blue. No allegiance to school, university or regiment: no patterns. The same applies to cuff links: understated, not too shiny, quietly ‘tasteful’.

Never anything else but a (startling) white shirt, perhaps (sometimes hopelessly) trying to be associated with purity, virtue and cleanliness.

Some have introduced the (very tiny) lapel badge which is not always clearly visible. Usually the national flag; sometimes a campaign logo. Never anything else, such as a Rotarian badge, or something from one’s regiment.

Women can choose something a little more individualistic. Again, the bling should be minimal, the hair perfect. They have to pay particular attention to trivial things such as shoes, which seem of particular interest to some journalists.

2. Face Furniture: It seems that around 80% of adults require some ‘vision correction’: namely needing glasses or contacts, because they are near or far-sighted. But whether to wear them in the photograph? The answer seems to be “no” if you look at most PR images.

One celebrated classic study in social psychology showed that people were rated as more intelligent if they wore glasses, but that the effect disappeared as soon as they spoke.

There are many “off-the-record” shots of politicians, TV journalists and film stars wearing glasses fleetingly, usually to read something. They seem to want to discard them as quickly as possible, despite the considerable effort and cost of choosing and purchasing them.

But why? The answer must be simply ageing and fitness. Face-furniture is for old(er) people. To present a picture of health and youth, wear contacts or see the world as a fuzzy mist.

3. To smile or not to smile? What about facial expression? From a very early age, most of us have experienced the “say cheese” instruction and urged always to smile for photographs. It shows we are happy. Happy is good: but not smug, nor gormless, nor sarcastic.

Yet this seems to be a recent ‘invention’. Look at old family photographs: very sombre expressions for the most part. Maybe it is about dentistry and not having work done. Again, another sign of health and age.

One remarkable study looked at the high school photographs of many pupils and their subsequent history (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 80). It evaluated the intensity of smiling in an American women’s yearbook at a posh (elite) institution. Follow up research showed the intense smilers were more likely to be married at 27 in a more satisfying marriage. Another study (Motivation and Emotion, Vol 29) showed that divorce rates could be accurately predicted from the degree to which people smiled in their school photographs.

The psychobabble goes: Smiling behaviour in photographs is indicative of underlying emotional dispositions that have direct and indirect life consequences.

4. Background: To what extent does the background enhance the sitter? The gravitas of the board room; the serious, academic feel of the bookshelf; the logo on the podium? Never the holiday beach, the poolside lounger.

Certainly, the setting can be used to convey a message. But is that too obvious, too vulgar and too restricting? Perhaps you can have a series of backgrounds for different purposes and the carefully crafted photo placed in it accordingly.

So, go back to your Facebook or press release pics: time for a re-think.

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at University College London and the Norwegian Business School.

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