Science News

Healthy Looking Leaders

Thu, 6th Nov 2014

Timothy Revell

Would you prefer your prime minister, president, or beloved leader to look healthy, intelligent, or both? Researchers from the VU University of Amsterdam say that given the choice, people prioritise healthy-looking candidates over intelligent ones.Healthy and Intelligent Faces

The team, lead by Brian Spisak, were exploring the phenomenon known as the attractiveness halo effect, which is when a person is assumed to have positive qualities simply because they are attractive.

"People that score higher on perceived attractiveness," said Spisak, "get rated higher on all kinds of other qualities such as trustworthiness, ambition and, importantly for my research, leadership."

The study, which is published in Frontiers of Human Neuroscience, sought to distinguish between two components of attractiveness: intelligence and healthiness. And which of the two did people rely on most when choosing a leader?

Volunteers were given a job description for a CEO and asked to select someone to fill the role, based solely on a headshot. 

"Across all contexts in our study," continued Spisak, "health was in general preferred, whereas intelligence was only preferred in certain contexts."

In fact, when given a choice, 69% of people chose a healthy leader over an unhealthy-looking one, but a preference for intelligent looking leaders only appeared when the job description included innovation or diplomacy. 

The images that were used in the study were obtained by digitally altering a male face. The appearance of intelligence was effected by making a structural change to the face while the impression of health was created by altering the colouration.

"I'd like to think that I have both a healthy and an intelligent face," says Spisak, reluctantly. "But  I think that is for others to perceive and make the judgement call!"

Listen to the full interview with Brian Spisak here.


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I sometimes wonder about the way these experiments are constructed. They claim that people rate more attractive people as more intelligent, and that may well be true. But you're also asking them to make a decision about something with no information to base that decision on. So they just base it on any other noticeable difference they consider to be a positive, because that's all they have to work with. I'd like to know what the outcome would be if the noticeable difference in the photograph was something else - nicer clothes, or a friendlier smile, age, or even some more aesthetically pleasing but completely unrelated quality of the photograph itself. etc. Is there is ever anything negative or neutral that people associate intelligence with?

I guess the other reason I question the experiment is that it seems to go against a lot of stereotypes about looks and intelligence. If asked to pick out the photos of Physic's Nobel prize winners, most people would not assume the really good looking ones must be the physicists. Or am I wrong? cheryl j, Sun, 9th Nov 2014

The only contemporary I ever envied in this world was Elizabeth Jones, who was unable to receive her PhD in person as she was booked to appear in the Miss Universe finals on the same day. She came third, but it didn't diminish the envy, so I went back to the gym but never got the modelling contract* or the Fields Medal.

Facial appearance is important if you are choosing a representative, particularly a CEO or a salesman. First impressions count, and someone who looks positive, dynamic, fit, trustworthy, confident, knowledgeable and experienced, is going to crack that first 15 seconds' contact with the customer. It doesn't take much coaching for an actor (Reagan) to learn the vocabulary and how to phone the lab with any serious questions: my most successful technical saleswoman (digital x-ray systems) was a recent English graduate and stripper - she could construct a grammatical sentence, smile, and look men in the eye, and everything else was in the brochure.

The President can't know all about everything, but he will be advised by generals and bankers (mostly the latter these days, it seems) and his job is, literally, to put a brave face on it. This is where ex-military drunks like Churchill and Eisenhower succeeded, whilst academic Obama, for all his intelligence, charm and handsomeness, always looks scared and indecisive.

When widowed, I spent some time with, looking for (and indeed finding) the ideal companion. From thumbnail photographs of thousands of contemporaries, I picked those faces that "looked intelligent" and 9 times out of 10 it turned out that I had picked a woman with a higher degree or major professional qualification, despite the fact that, in my age cohort, only about 5% of the population had a university education and fewer than 1% of women proceeded beyond a first degree. I still don't know what makes an "intelligent face", but it's obvious when you see it! 

*not quite true. 50 years later I am a moustache model for the local barber's students. It's the only job where "coarse" and "thick" are considered complimentary! alancalverd, Sun, 9th Nov 2014

Facial-hair choice for leaders is a minefield ... 

here for large version]

The toothbrush , ( appropriately on the far right ) , was very successful for a bit in the 20th century , but now is a definite no-no.  RD, Sun, 9th Nov 2014

I favour the "Wilford Brimley", better known to UK aviators as the "bulletproof" - it fits an oxygen mask better than the WWI handlebar, and beards, despite being standard issue for naval aviators, either leak oxygen or catch fire in extremis.  alancalverd, Sun, 9th Nov 2014

The only thing I could see in the photos above were the intelligent face seems somewhat longer, but not really disproportionately so. And the non intelligent face seemed stockier, the jaw more massive, the brow heavier. Although they look similar in age, the low intelligent face has a more child like quality because of the roundness, and despite the brow and jaw. The lips are slightly upturned in the intelligent faces and the gaze a bit more direct. The gaze of the unintelligent face seems slightly unfocused or misdirected. I wonder what other things they tweaked that I'm not noticing.

I would have expected the handlebar to be much farther down on the right because of Snidely Whiplash. cheryl j, Sun, 9th Nov 2014

It's funny, though, when most people hear about something like that, their reflexive reaction is "That's not fair!" because it seems that people should not be endowed with more than their share of remarkable qualities. cheryl j, Sun, 9th Nov 2014

It's funny, though, when most people hear about something like that, their reflexive reaction is "That's not fair!" because it seems that people should not be endowed with more than their share of remarkable qualities.

I don't, I just think why would an academic be interested in something like that? Maybe her PhD is in business or something not exactly, 'academic.' I would be less trusting of an academic who got involved with a competition like that, buy if they truly were competent in their field then it would just be an enigma to me. Musicforawhile, Sun, 9th Nov 2014

I think it would be pretty easy to pick an intelligent woman from their profile picture, you just follow this guide:
No bleached hair unless not noticeably bleached i.e they look Scandinavian
No hair extensions unless tasteful or not noticeably fake
No excessive make-up or jewellery
An interesting or subtle sense of style in their clothing choice
Hair looks natural in colour and length
No silly or appeasing expressions
No solicitous or overly sexual expression
No indicator of following any kind of fad or fashion e.g. posing with a sedated tiger/parachute jump photo and/or doing the duck face etc.

Musicforawhile, Sun, 9th Nov 2014

Or, she might just be Amish. cheryl j, Sun, 9th Nov 2014

Experimental physics. Why else would I be envious? alancalverd, Mon, 10th Nov 2014

Self-portrait of a Purcell fan, perhaps?

I'm still pondering on this but think it's mostly in the eyes - a confident, relaxed expression says a lot.

One of the brightest I met (PhD pharmacologist) used tons of makeup and AFAIK they all dyed their hair, but you can't hide intelligence with cosmetics. alancalverd, Mon, 10th Nov 2014

  you could be right. Musicforawhile, Mon, 10th Nov 2014

One of the most famous US Presidents, FDR...  well, he wasn't known for his physical prowess.  And, his British counterpart, Winston was always a little bit on the robust side. 

Judging a person from computer generated stripped down facial features is difficult, and it isn't surprising that one may choose "attractiveness" over other features. 

I think height has also been demonstrated to be favorable for leadership.  Perhaps one would choose taller, but also moderately heavy set as a bit more of a foreboding presence.  Yet, there are exceptions to every rule. 

I wonder how glasses fit into this.  There are stereotypical nerd/geek looks.  But, perhaps an excellent choice for someone to upgrade one's computer, but not necessarily the choice of someone to lead the nation (better to choose someone who needs glasses, but prefers to walk around blindly). CliffordK, Thu, 13th Nov 2014

I'd like to see the experiment done with politicians. In Britain, people could be tested on politicians from countries that don't speak English and who are not widely known on the international stage. In return, the public in the same foreign countries could judge our lesser political leaders, meaning anyone who isn't the PM. It would be very interesting to see what they make of Ed Milliband. It would be interesting too to see what they make of him (and his rivals) if they only see the text of what he says. I'd like to know if what he says only sounds stupid because I'm influenced so much by the way he looks and sounds. Anything that I read which is attributed to him automatically generates in my head a picture of him and the sound of his voice, so I may be incapable of judging him fairly. David Cooper, Thu, 13th Nov 2014

Thinking back to FDR that I mentioned earlier, apparently everyone around him was very careful to mask his disabilities from the public. 

It might be more difficult to do so today with all the paparazzi and tabloids (fortunately this isn't Britain). 

Perhaps projecting a weak commander in chief during a major military conflict wouldn't have been good.  However, I wonder if the public sentiment has changed over the last few decades, and what might have been looked upon with disfavor in the 1930's and 1940's would be largely ignored today.

Although, prejudices are often formed based on a brief snapshot view of an individual, and this topic is about judging based solely on a computerized photo. CliffordK, Thu, 13th Nov 2014

I did read an article a while back that said people could predict the winner of elections they knew nothing about based on appearance of the candidates in photos about 60-70% of the time. It might have been one of these. And the one mentioned in the Scientific American article is with kids! cheryl j, Thu, 13th Nov 2014

I heard a great comment on a radip phone-in during an Irish election. Caller said "Look at the photos on the posters. If I tried to sell a car with a retouched photo of what it looked like ten years ago, I'd be prosecuted for fraud."

One of the advantages of a hereditary monarchy is that the head of state isn't chosen on looks, and is trained from birth to do what is in the nation's interest, not what will get him re-elected. alancalverd, Thu, 13th Nov 2014

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