The influence of facial appearance based perceptions of leadership ability

Attributions of personality traits and abilities based on facial characteristics occur automatically and subconsciously. The project investigates the influence of such inferences when filling management positions.


  • Lead school Business School
  • Institute Institute for Applied Data Science & Finance
    Institute for Marketing & Global Management
  • Research unit Marketing
  • Funding organisation SNSF
  • Duration (planned) 15.11.2022 - 30.11.2026
  • Project management Prof. Dr. Christian Hopp
  • Head of project Prof. Dr. Stefan Rose
  • Project staff Myra Muzaffar
  • Partner Rheinisch-Westfälische Technische Hochschule Aachen
    Katholieke Universiteit Leuven
  • Keywords face to trait inferences, leadership, stakeholder, appearance based attributions, leadership ability, CEO successions


CEOs not only play an economic and operational role, but also increasingly a symbolic role in achieving economic, social and environmental goals for the companies they lead. In tandem with this emerging view, a large body of research has emerged highlighting the importance of appearance in the selection of leaders. Research from psychology suggests that faces in particular play a very important role in the attribution of personality traits and the assessment of other people's abilities. These face-to-trait inferences occur automatically and subconsciously, which makes it virtually impossible to prevent their influence on the formation of attitudes. Despite all the controversy about their validity, empirical studies show that inferences from faces about abilities and behaviour patterns are ubiquitous and have an impact on social situations and real-world decision making in important contexts, such as in elections or sentencing decisions. Currently, very few studies exist that incorporate facial appearance based trait inferences in leadership appointments. This research project aims at closeing this gap by not only investigating the overall impact of facial appearance-based inferences on executive selection, but also their influence on the contextual decision-making process of internal and external stakeholders such as customers, investors or potential employees of a company.

Course of action

The project includes the implementation of three work packages: The first step involves the implementation of a large-scale empirical field study with company data from S&P 1500 companies. In a field-based quantitative approach, different types of CEO succession scenarios (internal vs. external, voluntary vs. involuntary) will be examined and it will be investigated whether these relationships are affected by face-to-trait inferences regarding the designated CEO. In a second step, experimental studies are conducted to investigate whether inferences based on facial characteristics trigger attributional processes that influence the selection decisions on the part of potential internal decision-makers and how these attribution processes unfold depending on the context in which CEO succession takes place. In a third step, the project will focus on experimental studies to determine how inferences based on facial characteristics affect a company's external stakeholders (investors, customers, potential employees).

This project contributes to the following SDGs

  • 8: Decent work and economic growth
  • 16: Peace, justice and strong institutions