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Why Beauty Gets the Corner Office

Specialists in nonverbal communication have known since
at least the 1970s that it’s the beautiful people who often get the best jobs.
That early research concluded that the preference for tall, handsome leaders
rests on simple inferences that attractive people possess desirable traits. Scientists
believed that since we attribute all kinds of positive characteristics to
attractive people, this tends to lead to more leadership opportunities for them. One
consequence of that is that most business schools and especially some of the
top MBA programs emphasize the role of competency, as well as personal image for
business success.The recent study on beauty (handsomeness?) by White,
Kenrick and Neuberg, agrees with the conclusion that the handsome are often
rewarded, but for an intriguingly different reason than the past 40 years of
study. They take a functional evolutionary approach, arguing that people’s preferences for the good looking
may be “linked to ancient adaptations for avoiding disease.” Before you
laugh too loud, they make a good case for their theory, supporting it with
significant argument and research. 
Using the well-known work of Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs
& Steel), they argue that people have evolved defenses to prevent and
combat infection for millions of years. Numerous studies have pointed to their
hypothesis. The research supporting the notion that people are especially
likely to pay attention to disfigurements and to associate abnormalities with
contagious disease” is widespread. Indeed, other research reveals that
attractiveness is a cue to health status and correlated with perceptions of
health. Abraham Verghese, the marvelous author and physician teaches students
at Stanford Medical School to simply observe patients, arguing strongly for
observation as a key diagnostic. Thus, research has found that attractiveness
can be a diagnostic (though imperfect) to actual health outcomes. I’m certain
Verghese would also support that argument.This study argues that the costs of a leader becoming ill
and less effective, the fact that groups are relatively dependent on leaders—more
than other group members—and that groups with healthy leaders tend to be more
effective. This all points all point to the notion a preference for healthy
leaders, providing the researchers with their hypothesis.ResearchThe first three studies by White, Kenrick and Neuberg all focused on politicians,
support their hypothesis. The first study controls for gender, income and
education and emphasizes voting and voters. The second study engages feelings
of disgust, which, in turn, “predicted preferences for physical attractiveness”
in political candidates. The third study, emphasizing disease threats of group
members, once more finds support for increased preferences for leaders who are physically
attractive. In sum, the preference suggests a popular belief that the more
attractive have less potential for being sidelined by health issues, making
them more valuable.The fourth study supports the prediction that “during
periods of disease threat, preferences for physically attractive leaders are
stronger than general preferences for physically attractive group members.”  In a world in which business travelers, both national and international, constantly face disease threats, the beautiful business people have a leg up. Just look around. It seems appropriate to generalize these
findings to business people as well as to governmental politicians. That
provides another explanation for the plethora of good looking people in the
corner office.Caveat:
Historically, the research has suggested that women can be too beautiful to
become a corporate leader. The older insight—I’m unaware of any authentic
current research—was that people readily believed that beautiful women slept
their way to the top. I seriously doubt the validity of that perspective in
today’s world.What keeps surfacing as I write this is an experience from about 20 years
ago in which I lead a number of Sunday morning training sessions in a nouveau
riche, upscale Congregational Church in Edina, Minnesota. By the fifth or sixth
session there were close to three hundred adults present, a large proportion of
whom were corporate managers, executives, lawyers and physicians and their
spouses. In an aside, I suggested that they all turn around and check out the
audience of which they were a part. Asking them to note similarities among the
members, they commented on the richness of dress, the seeming friendliness (it
was church, after all), and the large number present for this course on family
conflict. (Several wryly noted that perhaps “we have a lot of family fights.”)  When they finished, I commented with a
question, “Did you notice what a handsome crowd of people we have here? There’s
not an ugly one in the bunch. Why do you think that is?” Though the comment had
absolutely nothing to do with conflict management, it generated quite a large
conversation. A few suggested, not at all defensively, that they’d always
suspected that good looks was a partial rationale for their success.
Intriguingly, there was not a single dissent. This was a highly educated, highly
successful clientele. Though anecdotal in background, perhaps there’s more to
class than money. And more to leadership than competency. It may also be basic
attractiveness.The NYTimes article by Douglas Kenrick and Andrew White
supports both the research as well as my anecdote. What’s intriguing about
their conclusion is the insight, warning that our decision making reflects our evolutionary
past, and rejecting many notions of our reasoned decision making.At first blush, you might not guess
that typhoid fever, John F. Kennedy and Sarah Palin had any connection with one
another. But the link between disease and leader preferences aligns with other
new findings showing that disease concerns are connected in functional ways to
a host of human decisions, from prejudice to religiosity. This work is part of
a larger program of research exploring how human decision making reflects the
influence of our evolutionary past, and highlighting how little we understand our
own, supposedly reasoned, decision making.Flickr photo by: roland
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Attractiveness
Specialists in nonverbal communication have known since at least the 1970s that it’s the beautiful people who often get the best jobs. That early research concluded that the preference for tall, handsome leaders rests on simple inferences that attractive people possess desirable traits. Scientists believed that since we attribute all kinds of positive characteristics to attractive people, this tends to lead to more leadership opportunities for them. One consequence of that is that most business schools and especially some of the top MBA programs emphasize the role of competency, as well as personal image for business success.

The recent study on beauty (handsomeness?) by White, Kenrick and Neuberg, agrees with the conclusion that the handsome are often rewarded, but for an intriguingly different reason than the past 40 years of study. They take a functional evolutionary approach, arguing that people’s preferences for the good looking may be “linked to ancient adaptations for avoiding disease.” Before you laugh too loud, they make a good case for their theory, supporting it with significant argument and research.

Using the well-known work of Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs & Steel), they argue that people have evolved defenses to prevent and combat infection for millions of years. Numerous studies have pointed to their hypothesis. The research supporting the notion that people are especially likely to pay attention to disfigurements and to associate abnormalities with contagious disease” is widespread. Indeed, other research reveals that attractiveness is a cue to health status and correlated with perceptions of health.Abraham Verghese, the marvelous author and physician teaches students at Stanford Medical School to simply observe patients, arguing strongly for observation as a key diagnostic. Thus, research has found that attractiveness can be a diagnostic (though imperfect) to actual health outcomes. I’m certain Verghese would also support that argument.

This study argues that the costs of a leader becoming ill and less effective, the fact that groups are relatively dependent on leaders—more than other group members—and that groups with healthy leaders tend to be more effective. This all points all point to the notion a preference for healthy leaders, providing the researchers with their hypothesis.

Research
The first three studies by White, Kenrick and Neuberg all focused on politicians, support their hypothesis. The first study controls for gender, income and education and emphasizes voting and voters. The second study engages feelings of disgust, which, in turn, “predicted preferences for physical attractiveness” in political candidates. The third study, emphasizing disease threats of group members, once more finds support for increased preferences for leaders who are physically attractive. In sum, the preference suggests a popular belief that the more attractive have less potential for being sidelined by health issues, making them more valuable.

The fourth study supports the prediction that “during periods of disease threat, preferences for physically attractive leaders are stronger than general preferences for physically attractive group members.”  In a world in which business travelers, both national and international, constantly face disease threats, the beautiful business people have a leg up. Just look around. It seems appropriate to generalize these findings to business people as well as to governmental politicians. That provides another explanation for the plethora of good looking people in the corner office.

Caveat: Historically, the research has suggested that women can be too beautiful to become a corporate leader. The older insight—I’m unaware of any authentic current research—was that people readily believed that beautiful women slept their way to the top. I seriously doubt the validity of that perspective in today’s world.

What keeps surfacing as I write this is an experience from about 20 years ago in which I lead a number of Sunday morning training sessions in a nouveau riche, upscale Congregational Church in Edina, Minnesota. By the fifth or sixth session there were close to three hundred adults present, a large proportion of whom were corporate managers, executives, lawyers and physicians and their spouses. In an aside, I suggested that they all turn around and check out the audience of which they were a part. Asking them to note similarities among the members, they commented on the richness of dress, the seeming friendliness (it was church, after all), and the large number present for this course on family conflict. (Several wryly noted that perhaps “we have a lot of family fights.”)  When they finished, I commented with a question, “Did you notice what a handsome crowd of people we have here? There’s not an ugly one in the bunch. Why do you think that is?” Though the comment had absolutely nothing to do with conflict management, it generated quite a large conversation. A few suggested, not at all defensively, that they’d always suspected that good looks was a partial rationale for their success. Intriguingly, there was not a single dissent. This was a highly educated, highly successful clientele. Though anecdotal in background, perhaps there’s more to class than money. And more to leadership than competency. It may also be basic attractiveness.

The NYTimes article by Douglas Kenrick and Andrew White supports both the research as well as my anecdote. What’s intriguing about their conclusion is the insight, warning that our decision making reflects our evolutionary past, and rejecting many notions of our reasoned decision making.

At first blush, you might not guess that typhoid fever, John F. Kennedy and Sarah Palin had any connection with one another. But the link between disease and leader preferences aligns with other new findings showing that disease concerns are connected in functional ways to a host of human decisions, from prejudice to religiosity. This work is part of a larger program of research exploring how human decision making reflects the influence of our evolutionary past, and highlighting how little we understand our own, supposedly reasoned, decision making.

Flickr photo by: roland

0 Comments

Leave a reply

Attractiveness
Specialists in nonverbal communication have known since at least the 1970s that it’s the beautiful people who often get the best jobs. That early research concluded that the preference for tall, handsome leaders rests on simple inferences that attractive people possess desirable traits. Scientists believed that since we attribute all kinds of positive characteristics to attractive people, this tends to lead to more leadership opportunities for them. One consequence of that is that most business schools and especially some of the top MBA programs emphasize the role of competency, as well as personal image for business success.

The recent study on beauty (handsomeness?) by White, Kenrick and Neuberg, agrees with the conclusion that the handsome are often rewarded, but for an intriguingly different reason than the past 40 years of study. They take a functional evolutionary approach, arguing that people’s preferences for the good looking may be “linked to ancient adaptations for avoiding disease.” Before you laugh too loud, they make a good case for their theory, supporting it with significant argument and research.

Using the well-known work of Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs & Steel), they argue that people have evolved defenses to prevent and combat infection for millions of years. Numerous studies have pointed to their hypothesis. The research supporting the notion that people are especially likely to pay attention to disfigurements and to associate abnormalities with contagious disease” is widespread. Indeed, other research reveals that attractiveness is a cue to health status and correlated with perceptions of health.Abraham Verghese, the marvelous author and physician teaches students at Stanford Medical School to simply observe patients, arguing strongly for observation as a key diagnostic. Thus, research has found that attractiveness can be a diagnostic (though imperfect) to actual health outcomes. I’m certain Verghese would also support that argument.

This study argues that the costs of a leader becoming ill and less effective, the fact that groups are relatively dependent on leaders—more than other group members—and that groups with healthy leaders tend to be more effective. This all points all point to the notion a preference for healthy leaders, providing the researchers with their hypothesis.

Research
The first three studies by White, Kenrick and Neuberg all focused on politicians, support their hypothesis. The first study controls for gender, income and education and emphasizes voting and voters. The second study engages feelings of disgust, which, in turn, “predicted preferences for physical attractiveness” in political candidates. The third study, emphasizing disease threats of group members, once more finds support for increased preferences for leaders who are physically attractive. In sum, the preference suggests a popular belief that the more attractive have less potential for being sidelined by health issues, making them more valuable.

The fourth study supports the prediction that “during periods of disease threat, preferences for physically attractive leaders are stronger than general preferences for physically attractive group members.”  In a world in which business travelers, both national and international, constantly face disease threats, the beautiful business people have a leg up. Just look around. It seems appropriate to generalize these findings to business people as well as to governmental politicians. That provides another explanation for the plethora of good looking people in the corner office.

Caveat: Historically, the research has suggested that women can be too beautiful to become a corporate leader. The older insight—I’m unaware of any authentic current research—was that people readily believed that beautiful women slept their way to the top. I seriously doubt the validity of that perspective in today’s world.

What keeps surfacing as I write this is an experience from about 20 years ago in which I lead a number of Sunday morning training sessions in a nouveau riche, upscale Congregational Church in Edina, Minnesota. By the fifth or sixth session there were close to three hundred adults present, a large proportion of whom were corporate managers, executives, lawyers and physicians and their spouses. In an aside, I suggested that they all turn around and check out the audience of which they were a part. Asking them to note similarities among the members, they commented on the richness of dress, the seeming friendliness (it was church, after all), and the large number present for this course on family conflict. (Several wryly noted that perhaps “we have a lot of family fights.”)  When they finished, I commented with a question, “Did you notice what a handsome crowd of people we have here? There’s not an ugly one in the bunch. Why do you think that is?” Though the comment had absolutely nothing to do with conflict management, it generated quite a large conversation. A few suggested, not at all defensively, that they’d always suspected that good looks was a partial rationale for their success. Intriguingly, there was not a single dissent. This was a highly educated, highly successful clientele. Though anecdotal in background, perhaps there’s more to class than money. And more to leadership than competency. It may also be basic attractiveness.

The NYTimes article by Douglas Kenrick and Andrew White supports both the research as well as my anecdote. What’s intriguing about their conclusion is the insight, warning that our decision making reflects our evolutionary past, and rejecting many notions of our reasoned decision making.

At first blush, you might not guess that typhoid fever, John F. Kennedy and Sarah Palin had any connection with one another. But the link between disease and leader preferences aligns with other new findings showing that disease concerns are connected in functional ways to a host of human decisions, from prejudice to religiosity. This work is part of a larger program of research exploring how human decision making reflects the influence of our evolutionary past, and highlighting how little we understand our own, supposedly reasoned, decision making.

Flickr photo by: roland

0 Comments

Leave a reply

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