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CEOs who look the part get paid more, researchers say

April 30, 2010
Courtesy of Duke University
and World Science staff

No swim­suits were on dis­play, but a cor­po­rate beau­ty con­test staged by econ­omists has nev­er­the­less ident­ified links be­tween looks and suc­cess in the busi­ness world.

By ask­ing on­line vol­un­teers to score pho­tos of chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cers, the re­search­ers found that CEOs rat­ed as com­pe­tent-look­ing get big­ger pay­checks, though their com­pa­nies don’t seem par­tic­u­larly prof­it­a­ble.

The in­ves­ti­ga­tors—all with with Duke Uni­vers­ity in Dur­ham, N.C., and the U.S. Na­tional Bu­reau of Eco­nom­ic Re­search—also found that CEOs are more likely than non-CEOs to be rat­ed as com­pe­tent look­ing, but less likely to be clas­si­fied as like­a­ble.

The find­ings are posted on­line on the web­site of the So­cial Sci­ence Re­search Net­work, an in­terna­t­ional col­la­bo­ra­tive of schol­ars ad­vo­cat­ing rap­id dis­semina­t­ion of so­cial sci­ence re­search.

“Other re­search­ers have found links be­tween beau­ty and work­ers’ pay, and de­mon­strat­ed that politi­cians ben­e­fit from good looks at elec­tion time,” not­ed John Gra­ham, one of the in­ves­ti­ga­tors. 

“I thought the ap­pear­ance thing was pos­si­ble for politi­cians win­ning elec­tions—but for CEOs, no way,” added co-author Camp­bell Har­vey. “We are told that CEOs are very care­fully vet­ted by boards of di­rec­tors and pro­fes­sion­al con­sul­tants—as they should be for their mul­ti­-million dol­lar jobs. The fact that our re­search shows that ap­pear­ance is un­ques­tionably sig­nif­i­cant turns my stom­ach.”

Har­vey and col­leagues staged a va­ri­e­ty of on­line ex­pe­ri­ments to ask nearly 2,000 par­ti­ci­pants to as­sess pho­tos of more than 100 CEOs and non-ex­ec­u­tives. Pho­tos of CEOs of large and small com­pa­nies, the authors said, were paired with with pho­tos of non-ex­ec­u­tives with si­m­i­lar fa­cial fea­tures, hairstyles and cloth­ing.

In one ex­pe­ri­ment, 765 par­ti­ci­pants were asked to rank the peo­ple in each pair of pho­tos ac­cord­ing to their at­trac­tive­ness, com­pe­tence, trust­wor­thi­ness and like­abil­ity. The ac­tu­al CEOs were rat­ed as more com­pe­tent-look­ing and more at­trac­tive. But CEOs were more fre­quently rat­ed as less trust­wor­thy and less lik­a­ble than the non-CEOs with whom their pho­tos were paired.

Si­m­i­lar re­sults were found when 762 par­ti­ci­pants were asked to rate CEOs of large firms against CEOs of small firms, the re­search­ers said. Large-firm CEOs were rat­ed as more com­pe­tent 55 per­cent of the time, while their small-firm coun­ter­parts were judged as look­ing more trust­wor­thy, like­a­ble and at­trac­tive.

The team found that CEOs who rat­ed four or above on a five-point scale for com­pe­tence had an av­er­age to­tal com­pensa­t­ion 7.5 per­cent high­er than CEOs who scored three out of five on com­pe­tence.


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No swimsuits were on display, but a corporate beauty contest staged by economists has nevertheless pointed to strong ties between appearance and success in the business world. By asking online volunteers to score photos of chief executive officers, the researchers found that CEOs rated as competent-looking get bigger paychecks, though their companies don’t seem particularly profitable. The investigators— all with with Duke University in Durham, N.C., and the U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research—also found that CEOs are more likely than non-CEOs to be rated as competent looking, but less likely to be classified as likeable. The findings are posted online on the website of the Social Science Research Network, an international collaborative of scholars advocating rapid dissemination of social science research. “Other researchers have found links between beauty and workers’ pay, and demonstrated that politicians benefit from good looks at election time,” noted paper co-author John Graham, one of the investigators. “I thought the appearance thing was possible for politicians winning elections—but for CEOs, no way,” added co-author Campbell Harvey. “We are told that CEOs are very carefully vetted by boards of directors and professional consultants—as they should be for their multi-million dollar jobs. The fact that our research shows that appearance is unquestionably significant turns my stomach.” Harvey and colleagues staged a variety of online experiments to ask nearly 2,000 participants to assess photos of more than 100 CEOs and non-executives. Photos of CEOs of large and small companies were paired with with photos of non-executives with similar facial features, hairstyles and clothing, In one experiment, 765 participants were asked to rank the people in each pair of photos according to their attractiveness, competence, trustworthiness and likeability. The actual CEOs were rated as more competent-looking and more attractive. But CEOs were more frequently rated as less trustworthy and less likable than the non-CEOs with whom their photos were paired. Similar results were found when 762 participants were asked to rate CEOs of large firms against CEOs of small firms, the researchers said. Large-firm CEOs were rated as more competent 55 percent of the time, while their small-firm counterparts were judged as looking more trustworthy, likeable and attractive. The team found that CEOs rated four or above on a five-point scale for competence had an average total compensation 7.5 percent higher than CEOs who scored three out of five on competence.