4 Things We Look for in a Leader

If you think we vote judiciously, think again.

Posted Mar 07, 2016

Flickr/Douglas Miller
Source: Flickr/Douglas Miller

Clearly, this has been an election cycle in which all bets have been off. Donald Trump has taken to calling Senator Marco Rubio “Little Marco.” Senator Rubio fired back by making insinuations about Mr. Trump's, ahem, “small hands.” Though many would consider these references too immature and crass to have a place in politics, they do raise an intriguing question about whether we prefer certain physical attributes in our leaders — and without even being aware of it. Science suggests that we do. Here are four physical attributes we look for in a leader.

1. Wide Mouths

Previous research has revealed that facial appearance can predict not only the selection of leaders, but also their performance. One such feature is the width of the mouth, which is associated with the inclination for physical combat in primates — and is perhaps related to being perceived as more dominant and of higher social rank by others. Take a study that first showed that, indeed, mouth width correlated with the selection of leaders. Through applying this finding to actual leaders, it was then demonstrated that mouth width was correlated with people's judgments of CEOs' leadership capabilities as well as with their actual leadership success (i.e., how profitable their companies were). People with with wider mouths were also more likely to have won senatorial — but, curiously, not gubernatorial — races  in United States.

2. Physical Attractiveness.

Studies demonstrate that beauty tends to win ballots. One line of research contends that this may be due to the halo effect, or the bias that what is beautiful is good. Yet another argument holds that we may prefer leaders who appear to be healthy — and good looks are an advertisement of a sturdy constitution. The relationship between disease concerns and the preference for attractive leaders has enjoyed empirical support. Consider a study which found that in congressional districts with greater disease threats, the more likely it was that physically attractive candidates would be elected. Similarly, the same study found that when disease concerns were experimentally activated, people tended to prefer comely candidates and value good looks in leaders to a greater degree.

3. Deep Voices

Studies show that political candidates with deeper voices tend to win modern elections. Deeper voices are perceived as stronger and more dominant, suggesting that people prefer leaders who can protect and prevail in conflicts. Take a study that extended these findings, revealing that conservative Republicans prefer male candidates who have lower-pitched voices than do liberal Democrats. Why? The authors contend that it may have to do with their differing world views. This study found that conservative Republicans generally view the world as a much more competitive and threatening place than do liberal Democrats, thus encouraging their preference for leaders who show signals of strength — like a deep voice.

4. Height

According to research, taller political candidates tend to be more successful. In a study that compiled all data on all presidential elections, investigators demonstrated that height is a major and influential factor in the US presidential elections. Candidates who were taller than their competitors tallied more popular votes — although, curiously, they were not significantly more likely to win the actual election. Presidents of taller stature were also more likely to be reelected. What's more, presidents were substantially taller than men from the same birth cohort. What explains these results? The authors maintain that taller presidents are seen as having greater leadership and communication skills. These findings also remain in keeping with other studies showing that height is associated with strength, which would have been an important attribute for leaders in our evolutionary past.

Perhaps the more aware we are of our biases, the more we can cast our votes in this election with the full might of our discerning minds.

Connect with Vinita Mehta at drvinitamehta.com and on Twitter and Pinterest!

Vinita Mehta, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist in Washington, D.C., and an expert on relationships, managing anxiety and stress, and building health and resilience. She provides speaking engagements for your organization and psychotherapy for adults. She has successfully worked with individuals struggling with depression, anxiety, and life transitions, with a growing specialization in recovery from trauma and abuse. She is also the author of a forthcoming book on dating, mating, and relationships.


"Vote Choice, Ideology, and Social Dominance Orientation Influence Preferences for Lower Pitched Voices in Political Candidates." Laustsen, L, Petersen, MB, Klofstad, CA. Evolutionary Psychology 13 (3), 1474704915600576.

"The big man has a big mouth: Mouth width correlates with perceived leadership ability and actual leadership performance." Daniel E. Re , Nicholas O. Rule. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Volume 63, March 2016, Pages 86–93.

"Tall claims? Sense and nonsense about the importance of height of US presidents." Stulp, G, Buunk, AP, Verhulst, S Pollet, TV. The Leadership Quarterly 24 (1), 159-171

"Beauty at the Ballot Box: Disease Threats Predict Preferences for Physically Attractive Leaders." White, A.E., Kenrick, D.T., Neuberg, S.L. Psychological Science October 11, 2013. 0956797613493642