Monday, 6 December 2010

The looks of a leader

Attractive people are generally seen as more competent and fit for their job. For example, experiments using headshot photographs of people mixed with random CVs generally show that people rated as physically more attractive also receive higher ratings in terms of “job competence”. Men deemed to be handsome are more likely to be regarded good business leaders. Yet, we know that, at the same time, for example intelligence and physical attractiveness don’t correlate (positively or negatively!). Hence, it is purely a physical preference; and nothing else.

The most striking example and evidence of this I found was not in an experiment on business leaders but from an experiment on political leaders – although I am sure the situation won’t be much different for business leaders.

Two researchers from the faculty of business and economics at the University of Lausanne - John Antonakis and Olaf Dalgas – ran an experiment in which they gave 684 people in Switzerland photographs – and nothing else – of the pairs of faces (the winner and runner-up) from the run-off stages of the 2002 French parliamentary election. These Swiss people would never have seen and did not know anything about these sets of two candidates. Subsequently they asked them “who do you think will win this election?” In 72 percent of the cases, having seen only the two photographs, people predicted the results of the elections correctly… That’s probably a lot better than most political analysts.

Then they got a little mischievous; they gave the photographs to 681 children and told them “we are going to play boat; who do you want as captain of our ship?” In 71 percent of the cases, the children’s’ choice correctly predicted the winner of the local French parliamentary elections.

We pretend – mostly to ourselves – when selecting a job market candidate, filling out a ballot, or choosing a leader, that we carefully weigh the pros and cons, assess someone’s experience and competence, and make a well-informed rational choice. Yet, in reality, at the end of the day, we’re all just playing boat.

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