Bench Press for Success? Research Finds We See Muscle Men as Leaders

By Nick Fiske

You can dress for success all you want, but if you’re a male, you might want to also make sure you hit the weights. A new study finds that people are more willing to perceive leadership qualities and confer status to men who are muscular.

As for females, the study suggests being buff doesn’t make a difference.

Researchers at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business and Oklahoma State staged a series of experiments, framed around a white-collar business backstory, that confirmed the built-in advantages of physically formidable males. People were shown photos of various models, told they were recent college graduates hired at a consultancy firm, and asked a series of speculative questions about what kind of job performance and prospective role they would expect from each hypothetical new hire.

The catch: The models were dressed in revealing white tank tops and photographed from the waist-up. They ranged from strong to weak, their upper-body strength having been calculated by a handheld hydraulic Dynamometer.

People were asked to evaluate each hire in several ways, such as “Rate this person’s ability to make his team members do what they are supposed to do” and “Rate this person’s ability to represent his team to others at face-to-face meetings.”

The results, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, show a direct relationship between the physical strength of the subjects and perceived leadership abilities, with the muscular men perceived as being better able to guide others.

“Stronger men were not afforded status because they were seen as bullying and intimidating others for their own selfish ends,” says Haas professor Cameron Anderson, whose research centers on status hierarchies and the psychology of power. “Rather, they were afforded higher status because people saw those stronger men as being able to contribute to the group.”

A popular myth of strong leaders is that they garner deference because they dominate and intimidate subordinates—the might-makes-right dominance theory.  In contrast, the findings highlight the power of subordinates in holding leaders accountable.  

“If you are strong and seen as an aggressive jerk, you are actually projected to get less status,” explains Oklahoma State assistant professor Aaron Lukaszewski, who conducted the study with Anderson. “The accrual of status by an individual is intrinsically dependent upon the perceptions of others that that person can generate benefits and improve group outcomes.”

To ensure that subjects weren’t being influenced by the models’ relative attractiveness, the researchers used Photoshop to swap features—affixing their heads to more or less muscular frames. It made no difference: responses again confirmed a leadership preference for the stronger build.

Previous studies have shown that we tend to attribute more positive qualities such as leadership to taller people—in politics, for instance, voters typically prefer the taller candidate. These experiments found a similar effect: When they arranged the models’ photos in a line-up, the taller individuals were perceived as more natural leaders.

The results for women were inconclusive—physically stronger females were not perceived as worthy of greater social status than their weaker counterparts.

Why do we prefer physically fit men? The simplest answer may be that we think they help us survive better. Hierarchies in human societies are a universal feature. In our hunter-gatherer past, when leaders were often judge, jury, and executioner, being physically imposing had clear advantages. Selecting a strong leader boosted a tribal society’s chances of thriving.  And just as dogs retain pack instincts into domesticity, humans still elect muscle-bound men as our leaders out of ingrained ideas of competence.

“The modern skull houses a stone age mind,” says Lukaszewski. “A staggering majority of our history is as nomadic hunter-gathering societies. Ten thousand years is a blink of an eye in evolutionary timescales.”

Filed under: Science + Health
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