The Face of a Leader

Are some faces a better fit for a leadership role in politics, law, or organized crime?

The faces carved on Mount Rushmore are among the greatest leaders in American history, but did their presidential faces help them to the top? Kurt Magoon/Flickr

What do political parties, law firms, and crime families have in common? Perhaps more than politicians, attorneys, and even mobsters would like to admit. But one of the most salient similarities is that each of these types of organisation is rigidly hierarchical. Each party, each law firm, and each crime family has a boss, and the boss is usually someone who has worked their way to the top from within the organisation. Perhaps the boss was elevated by his or her co-workers, or managed to see off all rivals by stabbing them in the back (either metaphorically or literally).

But do all supreme leaders earn their exalted positions because they are competent, or through exercising their political acumen? Or, instead, might it be that they ascend the hierarchy simply because their facial appearance fits them or their job just right?

Dan Re and Nicholas Rule, a pair of psychologists from the University of Toronto, asked themselves this very question. They knew from earlier research that we prefer to vote for masculine-faced politicians in times of war, and for baby-faced politicians in times of peace: perhaps because we still use a rule-of-thumb for choosing leaders that worked best when our species lived in small tribes on the African savanna. But it isn’t clear if we use the same rules when choosing people to lead other types of organisation.

The Laws of Power

Re and Rule visited the websites of the five biggest US law firms and downloaded photographs of executives of various ranks. Then they showed these photographs to a group of volunteers, who rated them for different traits, such as trustworthiness, maturity, dominance, and likability. Analysis of the ratings revealed that lawyers tended to receive ratings that varied along two dimensions: their apparent physical power and their apparent social skill. In other words, some lawyers looked tough and some looked weak, and some looked very socially adept while others looked as if their social skills were less developed.

Further analysis revealed that attorneys of the highest rank tended to be rated higher for power than lower ranked attorneys. Senior partners looked tougher than lower ranked partners, who looked tougher than associates. However, apparent social skill was unrelated to rank, which is perhaps contrary to what we might expect. After all, lawyers rarely resort to fisticuffs to win a case or negotiate a contract. Instead they use their intellectual and social skills to argue for their clients. So why should power rather than social skill be the deciding factor when it comes to selecting leading lawyers?

Re and Rule suggest that it’s because social skill is ubiquitous among attorneys. If you want to be an attorney, social skills are pretty much mandatory. It’s difficult to stand out from the crowd when all your colleagues are expert schmoozers and networkers. However, if you also happen to look like a boxer in a business suit, there’s a good chance you will stand head and shoulders over your pencil-necked peers. Powerful and socially skilled people are seen as better leaders, but a powerful lawyer is more distinctive than a socially skilled lawyer, and so may find it easier to secure a top position.

Capo di Tutti Capi

But this begs the question: what about other organisations in which social skill isn’t the norm? Organisations in which powerful brutes are ten-a-penny? Organisations like the mafia?

Re and Rule pointed their internet browsers at online databases of the so-called “five families”: the Bonanno, Colombo, Gambino, Genovese, and Lucchese clans who have ruled New York’s underworld for almost a century. They downloaded mugshots of the bosses, underbosses, capos, and consiglieres, and again showed these images to a group of volunteers.

As we might expect, the wiseguys were generally rated higher in power than the law executives, who were rated more socially skillful than the wiseguys.

But the more interesting finding was that mafia members were ranked more highly in their families if they looked more socially skilful. Their apparent physical prowess was unimportant. Every wiseguy can throw a punch; fewer have the big brains to rise to the status of criminal mastermind.

As Re and Rule point out:

Rather than corresponding to a particular trait, the assessment and acquisition of leadership appears to benefit from physical attributes that are unique and valuable within a group. In other words, the facial traits related to leader selection may vary by organization type.

“He Looks Like a Donald”

What about the world of politics? As we have seen, a politician may be judged as more or less fit to lead depending on circumstances: macho candidates fare better during wartime and those with softer appearances win more votes during peacetime.

But new research has shown that politicians outperform their rivals when their face fits their name.

You may have heard of the Bouba/Kiki effect. If not, here’s a brief introduction. If I show you two abstract shapes, one of which is angular and sharp and the other soft and rounded, and I ask you to tell me which of the shapes is called Bouba and which is Kiki, what would you say?

Two shapes. Which is Bouba and which is Kiki? Image credit: Rob Burriss

Most people say the angular shape is Kiki and the rounded shape is Bouba. But why? Psychologists think it might be because we pronounce the name Bouba by rounding our mouths to produce those soft vowel sounds. Conversely, we pronounce Kiki’s plosive consonant and sharp vowel near the back of our mouths: no rounding of the lips at all.

This connection between mouth shape, sound, and appearance may be a form of synaesthesia. People who experience a stronger form of this psychological phenomenon can sometimes hear music when they read, or taste flavors when they count, because the neurological signals caused by one stimulus inadvertently trigger sensations in another modality. The Bouba/Kiki effect may work in a similar way, except at a level almost all of us can appreciate.

But what, you might ask, does this have to do with faces? Well, not much until David Barton and Jamin Halberstadt of the University of Otago in New Zealand decided to run a series of experiments.

They realized that faces, like abstract shapes, can vary in their angularity or roundedness. Perhaps some names better suit some faces than others. After all, everyone knows a couple who has settled on a name for their child during pregnancy, only to meet their progeny for the first time and declare “he doesn’t look like a Donald”.

Barton and Halberstadt (in what is becoming a theme) downloaded photographs of men from various internet databases. These photographs were all neutral, passport-style images. The researchers specifically chose faces that varied in their angularity: some men had the angular chops of a Chris Pine or Matthew McConaughey; others had the softer features of a Leonardo DiCaprio or a Jonah Hill.

A group of volunteers looked at each of these faces and ranked a set of names according to how much they suited each face. Some of the names, like Bouba, were typically soft and round: Jono, George, and Lou. Other names, like Kiki, were typically sharp: like Pete, Kirk, and Mickey.

The results of the study showed that angular names were thought to be more suitable for angular faces, and softer names more suitable for softer faces.

So far, we have a neat but perhaps not especially ground-breaking extension of the original Bouba/Kiki effect. But here’s where it gets more interesting.

Liking a Name that Fits the Face

Barton and Halberstadt ran a new experiment. This time they had volunteers rate how much they liked each person, based only on their facial appearance. After rating each face, they were given an additional piece of information — the person’s name — and asked whether they would like to revise their rating.

Of course, the volunteers were not shown the face’s real name. Instead the name was randomly selected from a list of angular or rounded names. The faces were also angular or rounded, so the name could be congruent or incongruent with the face.

In general, people preferred angular to rounded faces, but they also adjusted their ratings based on the names. Rounded faces were liked more once they were revealed to have a rounded name. The effect was even stronger for angular faces: they were liked more if their name was revealed to be angular and less if their name was rounded.

A Senatorial Face

Now the researchers hopped back onto the internet and downloaded some more photographs, this time of male candidates in US Senate elections between 2000 and 2008. A new group of volunteers separately rated the candidates’ names and faces for roundedness, and the researchers computed difference scores that captured whether the angularity of a politician’s name matched his face. Some candidates had angular faces and angular names, some had rounded faces and rounded names, and others had faces that were more or less round than their names.

In a final step, Barton and Halberstadt tested whether politicians whose names were congruent with their faces received more or fewer votes in their elections. They found that well-named candidates did indeed secure more votes than their less well-named opponents. Candidates with very well fitting names received 10% more votes than those with very poorly fitting names, a margin that must surely have contributed to the victory of many sharp-faced Mikes and soft-faced Johns.

Barton and Halberstadt say:

People’s names, like shape names, are not entirely arbitrary labels. Face shapes produce expectations about the names that should denote them, and violations of those expectations … feed into more complex social judgments, including voting decisions.

Leaders emerge through promotion for hard work, securing votes for political office, or physically intimidating their underlings. But research is now showing that a distinctive face, one which advertises qualities that are rare in your organisation, or a face congruent with your name, may play a bigger role in our success than we previously imagined.


Barton, D. N., & Halberstadt, J. (in press). A social Bouba/Kiki effect: A bias for people whose names match their faces. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review. Read summary

Re, D. E., & Rule, N. (in press). Distinctive facial cues predict leadership rank and selection. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Read summary

For an audio version of this story, see the 4 July 2017 episode of The Psychology of Attractiveness Podcast.

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