11/06/2014 10:24 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

People Tend To Prefer Healthy-Looking Leaders Over Smart-Looking Ones: Study

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Politicians, listen up: People seem to prefer a healthy glow over an intelligent look when it comes to selecting a leader, according to a new study.

"[H]ealthy facial coloration, mostly as a consequence of diet, seems to be very important for people's perception of leaders," lead author Brian Spisak, an assistant professor at the VU University Amsterdam's Department of Management and Organization, told The Huffington Post about the findings.

The study -- conducted by researchers from VU University Amsterdam, the University of Leeds and the University of Dundee -- asked a group of 148 men and women to look at pairings of faces that were digitally altered to fit four types: low health and high intelligence, high health and low intelligence, low health and high intelligence and high health and high intelligence.

The healthier models were based on the coloration of the face of a person whose diet is high in fruits and vegetables. The more intelligent models were "based on mostly structural changes in the face which previous research had shown to be rated more or less intelligent," Spisak explained.

four face types

Participants were told to imagine their company was looking for its next CEO and instructed to select which person they preferred as their leader for certain tasks, such as renegotiating a key partnership with another company.

"People were shown pairs of male faces, which were either high or low on health, and high or low on intelligence," Spisak told HuffPost. "People were then repeatedly asked to choose which of the two faces they would want as their CEO in a variety of different organizational situations (cooperation, competition, exploration, exploitation). In total, people made a choice for CEO 24 times."

Researchers then "analyzed patterns of CEO preferences for a certain type of face (low/high intelligence, low/high health) in the different situations, and the preference overall."

Overall, health had a stronger effect on leadership ratings than intelligence. In 69 percent of trials, participants chose the high health faces over the low health faces. The high intelligence faces only won out over the less intelligent faces when the CEO's challenge was to negotiate a partnership (cooperation) and explore a new market (exploration).

Spisak does note that health certainly isn't the be-all, end-all when it comes to what people look for when selecting a leader.

"I would say intelligence is important for leaders -- people chose the more intelligent-looking leader over a less intelligent looking leader in 64% of trials -- but perhaps the specific facial changes representing intelligence in our study were not as important as the health manipulation," he said.

There are a few limitations to the study, though. Not only does further research need to be done on which leadership traits are associated with exploration and exploitation, but researchers acknowledge intelligence "is a somewhat broad concept."

The study was published this week in open access journal Frontiers In Neuroscience.



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