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The Look of a Leader

The Look of a LeaderAccording to new research by Tufts social psychologist Nalini Ambady, a CEO's appearance can reveal a lot about how successful he or she is.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [01.22.08] A picture is worth a thousand words, goes the old adage. But could it also be worth billions of dollars? According to a study co-authored by Tufts Professor of Psychology Nalini Ambady, the faces of chief executives can indicate their level of success. The study also shows that we should trust our gut instincts.

"These findings suggest that naive judgments may provide more accurate assessments of individuals than well-informed judgments can," wrote Ambady and co-author Nicholas Rule, a doctoral candidate in psychology at Tufts. "Our results are particularly striking given the uniformity of the CEOs' appearances."

The study was published in the February issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

In the study, 100 college students viewed headshots of the executives from the highest-ranked and lowest-ranked Fortune 1000 companies. Without knowing their names, titles or companies, the students were able to select which CEOs were the most successful and which were the least successful when it came to their companies' financial performance.

Among the traits that Ambady and Rule asked students to rate were overall leadership ability, competence, likeability, dominance, facial maturity and trustworthiness. High ratings on characteristics such as dominance and maturity correlated to company profits, the researchers found, while likeability and trustworthiness did not translate to a company's success.

"There's no relationship between how trustworthy a person seems and how well the company does," Rule told TIME. "Warmth isn't correlated with success. Power is."

Most of the CEOs were white, middle-class males. The photos were black and white, cropped tightly around the face and sized similarly, with similar facial expressions. If a subject recognized an executive, that data was excluded from the report.

"The findings were a surprise, but given what we know about the face and social psychology and how much information is carried by the face, it's not shocking that there would be such information there that would predict a company's performance," Rule told Reuters.

The Tufts researchers say it is uncertain exactly how success is reflected in one's facial appearance.

"What's not clear is whether people pick CEOs because they look a certain way, or if people look a certain way once they become CEOs," Ambady told TIME.

In October, Ambady was named one of 471 new fellows in the Academy of Arts and Sciences, for "distinguished contributions in the field of social psychology, particularly for innovative and groundbreaking research on interpersonal perception and nonverbal communication."

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