The Good Life

Positive psychology and what makes life worth living.

The Face of Leadership

CEOs with wider faces lead companies that perform better.

A "gee whiz" study was recently described by Elaine Wong, Margaret Ormiston, and Michael Haselhun (2011). These researchers were able to predict the financial success of Fortune 500 companies from the facial width-to-height ratio (WHR) of the CEO. That is, how wide was the CEO's face relative to how long it was? These researchers limited their analyses to male CEOs, and they assessed WHR from stock photos by measuring facial width from cheek-to-cheek and facial height from brow to upper lip.

 

 

 

Then they correlated the ratio with the return on assets of the company, controlling for industry standards as well as its financial past performance.

Wider faces predicted better performance, especially for companies judged to have low cognitive complexity in their communication and decision styles, as assessed from content analyses of a company's letters to shareholders. Lower cognitive complexity companies frame issues in black-and-white terms, whereas higher cognitive complexity companies convey issues in multidimensional and nuanced terms.

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Why did these researchers look at CEO facial structure in the first place? There is a line of theory and research suggesting that at least among males, wider faces are associated with more aggressive actions. A guy with a wide face looks more physically imposing and others are less likely to resist aggressive actions on his part.

Whether the mechanism of this effect reflects actual aggressive behavior on the part of the CEO or simply stereotypes about conventional masculinity that play well to the cognitively simple is not clear from the research, but the result is fascinating, even if it entails "only" a self-fulfilling prophecy. How we look matters, and like it or not, this phenomenon is worth documenting.

Should we buy stocks according to how fat the face of a company's CEO might be? Maybe, but I for one am glad that I have invested mightily in Apple over the years, even though Steven Jobs had a rather lean face.

In any event, I was led by this research to wonder if the implied principle held for Presidential candidates. Past research has shown that taller candidates tend to win these elections, especially since 1900, so maybe a fatter face is another physical characteristic that contributes to a candidate's appeal.

I found facial photos of some of the major male candidates for the 2012 election and did the appropriate measurements. The fattest face by far belongs to Newt Gingrich, exceeding that of Barack Obama, who in turn has a somewhat larger WHR than Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, and Rick Perry, although not by very much. Ron Paul's face is notably lean.

These WHRs do not neatly map into the results of current (January, 2012) polls pitting the various Republican hopefuls against President Obama (or one another). The results of polls seem to change frequently, so maybe at some point in time, maybe there will be another "gee whiz" result for someone to report. And if not, we can at least be relieved that voters are paying attention to something other than a politician's face.

Reference

Wong, E., Ormiston, M., & Haselhuhn, M. (2011). A face only an investor could love: CEOs' facial structure predicts their firms' financial performance. Psychological Science, 22, 1478-1483.

 

Christopher Peterson was professor of psychology at the University of Michigan.

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