Consulting clients may prefer to work with male professionals who have relatively small faces, often perceived as conveying trustworthiness, instead of males with relatively wide faces, according to new research that advances our understanding of how photographs may influence business relationships in the era of remote work.
The findings, presented in a study published April 16 in Frontiers in Psychology, are particularly relevant to how people present themselves on LinkedIn, the most popular social media platform used by professionals. In 2018, it was ranked as the 10th biggest website in the U.S. and generated nearly double the revenue of Twitter. The networking site is popular around the world, too. In 2020, the platform had 722 million global users — almost twice the population of the U.S.
LinkedIn's co-founders have stated that the social media site was meant to connect the world's professionals. Their goal aligns with a global trend: Business relationships are now more likely to start on a computer screen, especially during a worldwide pandemic with extended lockdowns. "Almost every professional has a personal digital twin that is used to build online relationships," according to the authors of the Frontiers in Psychology study.
"Appearance matters," lead author Eveline van Zeeland told The Academic Times.
"Whether we like it or not, first impressions of the other's face have an impact on our behaviors," the authors reported in the paper. As more business relationships start online, something as simple as a profile picture can help connect firms and clients. "A picture does appear to be 'worth a thousand words,' yet we don't know which kinds of words a face is in fact communicating," the researchers added.
One factor that has been shown to communicate social cues is the width of a male business professional's face. A facial width-to-height ratio is computed by dividing the overall width of a face by the distance between one's brow and one's upper lip. Previous research showed that a comparatively small face is associated with trustworthiness in men. On the other hand, wider faces have been linked to perceptions of success, with one famous study linking firms' financial outcomes to the width of the CEOs' faces.
To test how businesspeople are perceived by others, the researchers asked 381 business professionals, of whom 160 were females and 221 were males, to judge 24 real photographic portraits of Dutch consultants. All of the consultants were white, male, free of facial hair and dressed in a similar type of suit to make the sample as homogeneous as possible.
Van Zeeland and her co-author used multiple different methods to gather the perceptions of participants. First, a trained research team calculated the facial width-to-height ratio of the consultants from a photograph. Next, 62 business school students judged the age, perceived intelligence and perceived kindness of the 24 consultants. The survey asked the students to rate the consultants both by estimation on a scale from 0 to 100 and by categorization as very, fairly, or not really intelligent, for example.
The last part of the study was a field experiment with real professionals, who were asked to pose as potential clients of consultants. Perhaps fittingly, the professionals were invited to take part in the research via LinkedIn. The authors used a nonrandom sampling method to reach highly educated business professionals, ultimately finding participants who would most likely hire consultants in their actual careers. Van Zeeland and her co-author asked the participants to arrange the consultants' portraits in order of who they would rather invite for a first interview and who would best fill a knowledge gap on a short-term project.
After a list was established, the participants were asked to describe their first choice with keywords. The adjectives were categorized with the well-known HEXACO model of personality structure, which includes honesty and openness to experience as defining characteristics.
Van Zeeland and her co-author found that both women and men preferred faces with low facial width-to-height ratios when evaluating portraits. Most participants showed a preference for facial characteristics linked to perceived trustworthiness, as three out of four clusters chose consultants with a low facial width-to-height ratio — on average, 66.9% of the time.
Personality traits from keywords had a similar outcome, with participants motivated by perceived trustworthiness most often. The runner-up for the most important trait valued in businessmen was intelligence. "It is perhaps surprising that intelligent was not used more often by business professionals to describe their preferred consultant," the authors noted in the paper.
Van Zeeland acknowledged that gender diversity was a limitation in the research. There is not enough evidence to establish a strong link between the facial width-to-height ratio and behavior in women, because the ratio is less pronounced in females, which may be linked to testosterone.
Racial diversity was another factor emitted from the study in order to test the most homogeneous sample possible. Van Zeeland was surprised at the participants' concern over the lack of females represented, as no one voiced an issue about the homogeneity of an all-white sample. She noted that the effects of gender and race on first impressions are definitely worth investigating in future research.
The businessmen in the current study represent a small sample of portraits shown on corporate websites and personal sites such as LinkedIn, which can have a huge impact on future relationships. If a professional chooses photos that communicate trustworthiness, online interactions can be even more strategic than in-person meetings, van Zeeland said. On the other hand, certain portraits can make businesspersons appear untrustworthy.
"Trust is really important," van Zeeland said. "Of course, you can also cover trust using contracts and have a whole team of lawyers … that's one way to solve things, but ask yourself if that's always the most efficient way to solve things. I have an idea that the world will benefit if we can design more trust in business relationships."
The study, "E-perceptions and business 'mating': the communication effects of the relative width of males' faces in business portraits," published April 16 in Frontiers in Psychology, was authored by Eveline van Zeeland, University of Twente and HAN University of Applied Sciences; and Jörg Henseler, University of Twente, Universidade NOVA de Lisboa and University of Seville.