The Might of Muscle

Power of Haas Ideas

The Might of Muscle

Muscular men perceived to be better leaders, says Prof. Cameron Anderson

In California’s historic 2003 recall election, former Mr. Universe bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger easily defeated California Governor Gray Davis, a man arguably weaker looking than “The Terminator.”

Coincidence? Maybe. But now real evidence shows that a muscular physique might be an important attribute when it comes to judging someone’s leadership potential.

Study participants in a series of experiments conducted by Haas Prof. Cameron Anderson and Aaron Lukaszewski, an assistant professor at Oklahoma State University, overwhelmingly equated physical strength with higher status and leadership qualities. Their paper is forthcoming in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

The experiments employed a handheld, hydraulic dynamometer to measure the chest and arm strength of various men. Each was then photographed in a white tank to reveal his shoulder, chest, and arm muscles.

In one experiment, equal groups of men and women were shown photographs of the different men and told to rate them as recent hires of a new consulting firm. The participants were asked questions such as, Do you think this person would be a good leader? and How effective is this person dealing with others in a group?

“The physically strong men in the pictures were given higher status because they are perceived as leaders,” says Anderson. “Our findings are consistent with a lot of real examples of strong men in positions of power.”

In another experiment, the researchers used Photoshop to switch the bodies of the strong and weak subjects. A weak man’s head was depicted on a strong man’s body, and vice versa. The result: participants rated the weak men with stronger, superimposed bodies higher in status and leadership qualities.

A final experiment focused on height. Using Photoshop, the researchers showed the men in equal or varied heights in lineups. Men of taller stature were perceived to have more strength and were rated higher in leadership and status.

The researchers say their findings also dispel the popular explanation that the strong succeed by aggressively intimidating their rivals into submission. “Strong men who were perceived as being likely to behave aggressively toward other group members were actually granted less status than their apparently gentler counterparts,” says Lukaszewski. “The results suggest that the conferral of status upon formidable men, perhaps counter-intuitively, serves a fundamentally pro-social function—to enhance the effectiveness of cooperation within the group.”

This phenomenon apparently applies to men only. There was little effect on participants’ perception of leadership skills when they were shown physically strong vs. weak women.

So, do smaller, shorter, or less formidable men have to work harder to gain status? Not necessarily. “Perceived strength does give people an advantage, but it’s not make or break,” says Anderson. “If you’re behaving in ways that demonstrate you are or are not a leader, strength doesn’t matter.” —Pamela Tom

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