We’re told over and over again not to judge a book by its cover, but in some cases the assumptions we make based on a person’s appearance are pretty spot-on.
In 2010, researchers found that it’s possible to gauge someone’s success as a leader based solely on their headshot. Even eerier? The researchers found that college yearbook photos taken 20 to 50 years earlier could be just as revealing.
For the study, researchers recruited 67 undergrads to review a series of headshots of managing partners at top US law firms. Some students saw 73 photos that had been taken from the firms’ websites; others saw 73 college yearbook photos of the same people. (All photos were converted to grayscale.)
Students were asked to rate each person pictured on dominance, facial maturity, likability, and trustworthiness.
Researchers combined ratings for dominance and facial maturity to produce a “power” score and combined ratings for likability and trustworthiness to produce a “warmth” score. Then they checked out the firms’ profitability to see if the partners’ power and warmth scores correlated with their firms’ success.
Results showed that it didn’t matter whether students saw recent headshots or yearbook photos — the partners they perceived as more powerful (as in, the partners whose faces looked dominant and mature) inevitably led more profitable firms. In other words, it wasn’t as though partners developed a powerful appearance through years of experience — they looked powerful before they’d even gone to law school or launched their careers.
Of course, the researchers write, all the partners whose photos were featured in the study were successful leaders, so the same findings might not hold true among the general population.
The researchers are also quick to note that their findings don’t imply that your physical appearance is the sole determinant of your success in life: “Rather, it seems more likely that innate appearance and life experiences work in concert to shape facial appearance in a way that predicts outcomes.”
Either way, this study isn’t the only one to suggest that looking at a photo of someone in early adulthood can yield clues as to how his or her life will turn out later on. Studies have found that people who smile and look positive in their yearbook photos are more likely to be happy and less likely to get divorced when they’re older.
Taken together, these findings complicate the popular notion that people’s outward appearance is less meaningful than what they say or how they behave. In fact, it may be entirely possible to predict how someone’s life will unfold based on his or her looks from a relatively young age — a scary thought, for sure.
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