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CEO Success: It's All in the Face

Study: Familiarity Can Muddle Communication

Heed this, executives: Look sharp. The first impression a CEO gives, even based solely on certain facial characteristics, could predict how successful his company will be, a new study suggests. First impressions — what others think of a person at a glance — can tell us a lot about another person, and several psychological studies have shown that they can predict success in areas such as running for elected office or teaching. But how well a teacher teaches and how much a candidate appeals to voters are both subjective ideas. Psychologists Nicholas Rule and Nalini Ambady of Tufts University set out to study whether first impressions could predict performance in a more objective evaluation: how successful a CEO's company was. In their experiment, the researchers had college students rate the faces of the CEOs of the highest and lowest ranking Fortune 1000 companies according to their perceived leadership abilities . Certain personality traits associated with leadership, including competence, dominance, likeability, facial maturity and trustworthiness, can be judged from a person's face, previous studies have shown. The researchers grouped these traits into two factors influencing leadership. Competence, dominance and facial maturity were combined to represent "power," while likeability and trustworthiness represented "warmth." The CEOs who were rated as more powerful by the students turned out to be running more successful companies. "CEOs who are ranked higher in terms of looking more powerful do better or have more profitable companies than those who are ranked warm," Ambady said. Whether the fact that the CEO gives off a powerful first impression actually influences their work in the business world is hard to say for certain, the researchers say. "In the business world, first impressions matter," Ambady told LiveScience. "How much this [result] translates is another question." But Rule and Ambady say their study, detailed in the February issue of the journal Psychological Science, supports the earlier work that first impressions can be used to tell how well someone will do at a certain job or task.

Andrea Thompson
Andrea Thompson

Andrea Thompson is an associate editor at Scientific American, where she covers sustainability, energy and the environment. Prior to that, she was a senior writer covering climate science at Climate Central and a reporter and editor at Live Science, where she primarily covered Earth science and the environment. She holds a graduate degree in science health and environmental reporting from New York University, as well as a bachelor of science and and masters of science in atmospheric chemistry from the Georgia Institute of Technology.