You might notice that many studies we cover rely on survey rating data. This reflects the field's research focus and its desire for 'ecological validity' - examining real-world contexts rather than simplified laboratory set-ups. Nonetheless, as someone with a heterodox psychology background, I find it heartening when studies choose more imaginative measures.
Here's a great example, entirely rating-free: a study that evaluates whether male CEO appearance affects company performance by actually measuring CEO face width-to-height (WHR) ratios in photos. The study suggests that in certain leadership contexts, leaders with larger WHR ratios generate higher firm returns on assets, seemingly due to such faces conferring a psychological sense of power needed for dynamic decision-making.
A similar finding that relied on rating data would be as much about perception as reality, but by using objective dimension measurements, the authors can make the claim that biological features directly predict work performance. So is it time for HR departments to pull out the callipers? Let's hear more on the study.
Elaine Wong and colleagues gathered data from 55 Fortune 500 organisations, collecting online photos and available financial data. In another example of a neat measurement variable, they conducted content analysis on letters to shareholders, analysing the frequency of words that reflect high and low cognitive complexity - the tendency to see the world as nuanced and graded (suggested by words like "possibility" or "trend") or black and white ("absolutely", "irreversible"). These letters are generally understood to be the work of whole senior teams, not the CEO alone, so they tell us which company teams are cognitively simple, making them more likely to take decisions quickly in deference to authority.
It turns out that only for companies run by cognitively simple teams did wider-faced CEOs delivered higher firm return on assets. In cognitively complex teams, where decisions are made more collectively and systematically, there appears to be less opportunity for firm, powerful leaders to stamp their authority. A fascinating nuance to the study.
A skeptical view could mount a counterclaim: CEO faces don't matter, but cognitively simple decision-makers think they do. Their black-and-white thinking demands a stereotypically solid-looking leader, or perhaps their history of solid-looking leaders has conditioned them to black-and-white-thinking. Either way, such teams then compete over CEOs of desired appearance and, all things being equal, the most attractive firms will be better at acquiring them. The lack of an effect in cognitively complex teams? Faces don't loom large in their choices of leaders.
It's an ad-hoc argument, weakened by the fact the study analysis controlled for firm performance in previous years. However, it's still possible that a firm on the verge of an upturn has a cachet they use to draw in leaders of the desired mould. Until a study explicitly measures psychological power, and demonstrates that it is the linking variable between the biological characteristic and performance, it remains possible that leaders with WHR are simply jumping on board to put their face to success.
All in all, a methodologically sharp study that opens up examination of how biological features act as markers for work-relevant capabilities.