Psychologists found that stronger-looking men were rated as having more ability to lead

In a further sign that humans aren’t so different from our simian forebears, it seems that what really makes a man look like a leader is…muscles.

That is the implication of a recent paper that outlines several experiments exploring the relationship between perceptions of physical strength and leadership abilities. The research suggests that both men and women associate the appearance of physical strength with leadership qualities and higher status, at least in men.

The experiments—conducted by psychologists at the Berkeley and Santa Barbara campuses of the University of California, the University of Portland and Oklahoma State—showed a group of volunteers images of young men and women supposedly hired by a new consulting firm. In the pictures, the young people, who had previously been tested and scored for upper-body strength, wore tank tops that showed off their physiques.

When shown sets of men, the volunteers consistently rated the ones with higher strength scores as having more leadership ability, evidently inferring strength from buff physiques. But when shown sets of women, there was no correlation between perceived strength and leadership qualities. Greater height, on the other hand, made both men and women seem more like leaders (and smarter too), although the leadership effect of height wasn’t as great as that of strength.

A key caveat: If a man looked to the raters as if he were likely to use his strength “in forceful pursuit of self-interest”—if he somehow looked like a bully—it detracted from his leadership aura.


The researchers didn’t ask the raters about something as vague as “leadership skills.” Instead, they hypothesized that people see “physical formidability” as a measure of the ability to perform specific leadership roles. Sure enough, the experiments revealed that the more muscular men were rated as more likely to enforce rules and norms within a group and to represent that group effectively in encounters with other groups.

“Strong men are seen as deserving of high status because of their ability to generate valuable leadership benefits,” says Aaron W. Lukaszewski, an Oklahoma State psychology professor who worked on the study. But they are only seen this way if they benefit the group, he adds: “Physically strong men who are perceived as aggressively self-interested are actually granted less status than their gentler counterparts.”

To make sure that the findings weren’t just an effect of facial attractiveness or a lantern jaw, the psychologists ran the experiment again, with pictures showing the faces of weaker men attached to stronger bodies and vice versa. The switch basically had no effect; the leadership ratings of the strong bodies were about the same as they had been before, despite the addition of the weaker men’s faces, suggesting that the key factor was strength and not physiognomy.

“The Role of Physical Formidability in Human Social Status Allocation,” Aaron W. Lukaszewski, Zachary L. Simmons, Cameron Anderson and James R. Roney, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Dec. 14

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