Pretty people do better. Whether interviewing for a new job, applying for a promotion, or, in the world of politics, seeking voters’ support, people with good looks tend to reap more rewards. It pays to be physically attractive.
Previous studies bear this out. But, from my own research, which is forthcoming inThe Leadership Quarterly, I’ve discovered that things aren’t so cut and dried, beauty isn’t a fixed trait as many of us tend to believe, and that our perceptions of one’s attractiveness can be enhanced in positive ways depending on the situation.
In two different studies, for example, my colleagues (Brian Wansink of Cornell’s Dyson School, Vladas Griskevicius of the Carlson School of Management at University of Minnesota, and David Sloan Wilson of SUNY-Binghamton) and I found that people with strong ties to a group or organization (say, a political party or a business) rate their own leaders much higher on a scale of physical attractiveness than do outsiders.
In our first study, we asked legislative aides in Wisconsin to rate the physical attractiveness of 16 political leaders with whom they were familiar and eight politicians with whom they were unfamiliar on a scale of 1 (very physically unattractive) to 9 (very physically attractive). We chose legislative aides because they interact closely with legislators and they have a clear stake in the success of their leaders since the number of aide positions fluctuates as a function of which party has more power.
We sampled the aides within a month of a recent election cycle. Republicans rated their own leaders a full two points more physically attractive than Democrats did and the comparable pattern held for Democrat-on-Democrat ratings. (As a control, ratings of unfamiliar political leaders did not vary importantly on the basis of whether the raters were Republican or Democrat.)
To test whether or not the legislative aides were exceptional in how they viewed their supervisors, we conducted a second study with a similar design but a different population whose stakes are less directly tied to their leaders’ success.
In the second study, we asked Republicans and Democrats in Minnesota to rate 16 familiar political leaders and 12 unfamiliar leaders (e.g., local-level politicians from upstate New York). The personal relationship between followers and leaders in this sample was more distant; however, it’s also more comparable to large businesses where personal interaction between mid-level managers and chief executives may not occur.
Our findings in our second study replicated those from the first. We found that self-identified partisans rated their own leaders as significantly more physically attractive when compared with ratings for the same leaders from supporters of the rival party. Likewise, there was no significant difference in the ratings of the unfamiliar leaders on the basis of partisanship.
This is good news. Although it’s true that the beauty biases exists, and always will, our study shows that emerging and experienced leaders can overcome and effectively reverse such biases by exhibiting more important traits such as intelligence, empathy, open-mindedness, and respect — that is, by being good leaders. The more they engage with their organizations, and the more they create an atmosphere of community and belonging, the more “attractive” — in every sense of the word — they’ll be in the eyes of their colleagues, supporters, and direct reports.
Kevin Kniffin (@KevinKniffin) earned his Ph.D. in Anthropology and teaches at the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University. His research focuses on cooperative and competitive dynamics within groups and he has frequently used sports as a model organizational domain.
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