Evolution, appearance, and occupational success

Anthony C. Little, S. Craig Roberts

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

60 Citations (SciVal)


Visual characteristics, including facial appearance, are thought to play an important role in a variety of judgments and decisions that have real occupational outcomes in many settings. Indeed, there is growing evidence suggesting that appearance influences hiring decisions and even election results. For example, attractive individuals are more likely to be hired, taller men earn more, and the facial appearance of candidates has been linked to real election outcomes. In this article, we review evidence linking physical appearance to occupational success and evaluate the hypothesis that appearance based biases are consistent with predictions based on evolutionary theories of coalition formation and leadership choice. We discuss why appearance based effects are so pervasive, addressing ideas about a "kernel of truth" in attributions and about coalitional psychology. We additionally highlight that appearance may be differently related to success at work according to the types of job or task involved. For example, leaders may be chosen because the characteristics they possess are seen as best suited to lead in particular situations. During a time of war, a dominant-appearing leader may inspire confidence and intimidate enemies while during peace-time, when negotiation and diplomacy are needed, interpersonal skills may outweigh the value of a dominant leader. In line with these ideas, masculine-faced leaders are favored in war-time scenarios while feminine-faced leaders are favored in peace-time scenarios. We suggest that such environment or task specific competencies may be prevalent during selection processes, whereby individuals whose appearance best matches perceived task competences are most likely selected, and propose the general term "task-congruent selection" to describe these effects. Overall, our review highlights how potentially adaptive biases could influence choices in the work place. With respect to certain biases, understanding their origin and current prevalence is important in order to potentially reduce discrimination in the work place.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)782-801
Number of pages20
JournalEvolutionary Psychology
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 2012


  • Applied evolutionary psychology
  • Elections
  • Equality
  • Human behavior
  • Lookism
  • Presidents


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