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The Partner Premium and Penalty

Scientists investigate the link between leadership ability and partner beauty.

Source: thetaxhaven/Flickr

New Jersey-based management studies professors have found that the perceived competence of leaders is affected by the attractiveness of their spouses. An attractive partner enhances the apparent leadership ability of a man, but female leaders suffer a penalty when their partner is attractive.

Humans are social beings, and we like to come together to solve problems. Often, even when people are working on a minor task, a hierarchy will emerge, headed by a leader. Leaders can also be appointed or elected by the consent of the group based on their perceived suitability for the role.

When groups are large — on the scale of countries or corporations — it becomes more difficult to judge potential leaders. Group members may not have the time or opportunity to observe their leaders in action, at least not up close, and so must rely on rules-of-thumb to determine who should be elevated to a position of power.

One such rule-of-thumb is based on the leader’s appearance. For example, taller men tend to rise to the top of organizations. Now, although height is an advantage on the basketball court, there is little reason to expect the same should be true of the boardroom. What appears to drive this effect is the belief that height equals formidability and dominance, and that therefore a tall person is probably a formidable and dominant leader.

The same goes for facial appearance, which can predict who will win political contests or achieve a high rank in the military.

But we pay attention not just to potential leaders themselves but also their spouses, as evidenced by research that appeared in a recent issue of The Leadership Quarterly.

Ipek Kocoglu of Kean University and Murad Mithani of Stevens Institute of Technology hypothesized that a “trophy spouse” may be taken to indicate that a leader is of high quality, because successful leaders are presumably better able to attract appealing partners.

In their first experiment, Kocoglu and Mithani showed a group of volunteers photographs of Fortune 500 CEOs either alone or with their real-life opposite-sex spouses. The volunteers rated the CEOs and their spouses for attractiveness and leadership ability.

The researchers first found that men were seen as better leaders when in the presence of a partner. Women, however, were seen as worse leaders when pictured beside a man. The partner-penalty for women was stronger than the partner-premium enjoyed by men.

Men were also seen as better leaders to the extent that their partner was attractive: men with hotter partners were thought to be better leaders.

In a second experiment, Kocoglu and Mithani paired their CEOs with fake partners who were either high or low in attractiveness, and then showed these ‘couples’ (and, for comparison purposes, CEOs on their own) to a group of new volunteers.

Again, men were seen as better leaders when pictured with an attractive woman. Women were seen as worse leaders when with an attractive man.

The researchers speculate that one reason for this gender difference could be that “observers find attractive male partners more leader-like.” That is, when a female leader is paired with an attractive man, observers think that he would make a good leader based on his own appearance, and therefore relegate the female leader pictured with him to the role of follower.

Another possibility is that, because men tend to value physical attractiveness in a partner to a greater extent than women do (especially for a long-term relationship), the message that is sent by an attractive partner may be different depending on the sex of the leader. A man with an attractive female partner may be seen as successful; a woman with an attractive partner may not be seen in the same way (because women tend to value physical attractiveness more in short-term than in long-term relationship partners, a hot partner may even reflect negatively on a woman).

In a third and final experiment, Kocoglu and Mithani tested whether the effect would hold in a political context. They collected photographs of candidates in the 2018 US mid-term elections to the House of Representatives, along with their spouses. These photographs were shown to volunteers from outside the US, who would be unlikely to recognize the candidates or their spouses, and were rated for attractiveness and voting preference (whether the volunteer would back the candidate in an election).

In general, candidates from the more conservative Republican Party tended to have more attractive spouses than candidates from the more liberal Democratic Party. Male candidates received a boost in voting preference if their spouse was attractive, and this premium was stronger for Republican than Democratic candidates. The volunteers were also asked about their own political persuasion, and more conservative volunteers preferred to cast their vote for male candidates who were pictured with an attractive rather than an unattractive spouse.

As with the CEOs, female political candidates were valued less when seen with an attractive male partner. Here, the political affiliation of the candidates and of the volunteer were unimportant.

These biases may stem from the fact that women are underrepresented in leadership roles, resulting in the “think leader — think male” phenomenon, whereby men are assumed to embody leadership characteristics and women are not.

Kocoglu and Mithani’s experiments were based on earlier research into mate-choice copying, which describes how men are perceived as more attractive if pictured with an attractive female partner.

Facebook image: Carlos Horta/Shutterstock


Kocoglu, I., & Mithani, M. A. (2020). Does an attractive partner make you a better leader? Only if you are a male! The Leadership Quarterly, 31(2), 101339. doi:10.1016/j.leaqua.2019.101339

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