Media Releases

Psychologists make link between profitability of law firms and college yearbook photos of managing partners

November 30, 2010

TORONTO, ON – Psy­chol­o­gists at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to and Tufts Uni­ver­si­ty have shown that law firms are more prof­itable when led by man­ag­ing part­ners with pow­er­ful look­ing faces.  Fur­ther, an individual’s career suc­cess can be pre­dict­ed as much as 30 to 40 years ear­li­er sim­ply by look­ing at their face.

“Appear­ance mat­ters a great deal when it comes to judg­ing peo­ple,” says Pro­fes­sor Nicholas Rule of the Depart­ment of Psy­chol­o­gy at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to, lead author of a new study pub­lished in Social Psy­cho­log­i­cal and Per­son­al­i­ty Sci­ence.  “This includes cloth­ing, pos­ture, and hair­styles, but the real win­dow to judg­ing peo­ple is the face. We devel­oped a method to mea­sure facial pow­er and found that it is a strong pre­dic­tor of law firm prof­itabil­i­ty.”

Rule and co-inves­ti­ga­tor Nali­ni Ambady of the Depart­ment of Psy­chol­o­gy at Tufts Uni­ver­si­ty had peo­ple judge pho­tos of 73 man­ag­ing part­ners from the top 100 law firms in the Unit­ed States for the year 2007.  They used a scale of 1 to 7 to mea­sure qual­i­ties such as dom­i­nance, facial matu­ri­ty, like­abil­i­ty, and trust­wor­thi­ness, with 7 indi­cat­ing high amounts of those qual­i­ties.  Half of the judges rat­ed cur­rent pho­tos down­loaded from law firm web­sites, while the oth­er half rat­ed col­lege year­book pho­tos of the same indi­vid­u­als, which on aver­age were tak­en 33 years pri­or.

“The rat­ings of dom­i­nance and facial matu­ri­ty for pho­tos aver­aged togeth­er to form a mea­sure of per­ceived pow­er for each leader,” says Rule.  “We cor­re­lat­ed those scores with the prof­its of the lead­ers’ respec­tive firms and found that they are pos­i­tive­ly asso­ci­at­ed with one anoth­er, both for the judg­ments made from cur­rent pho­tos and those made from col­lege year­book pho­tos.”

“So, if you knew noth­ing about law firms oth­er than what the faces of their lead­ers looked like when they were in col­lege, you could pre­dict their firms’ prof­its today,” Rule says.  “Facial cues to suc­cess may there­fore be con­sis­tent across much of the lifes­pan – approx­i­mate­ly 20–50 years.”

Although the researchers stud­ied only lead­ers of law firms, Rule says that the find­ings could have appli­ca­tions for busi­ness, gov­ern­ment, and oth­er sec­tors.  “In pre­vi­ous work, we’ve found sim­i­lar effects with CEOs and polit­i­cal can­di­dates,” he says.  “Judg­ments of faces pre­dict­ed a For­tune 1,000 company’s suc­cess and the per­cent­age of votes that can­di­dates received in the US, Cana­da, and Japan. These find­ings sug­gest that judg­ing col­lege year­book pho­tos might pre­dict the out­comes for lead­ers in those domains as well.”

The find­ings are pre­sent­ed in a paper titled “Judg­ments of Pow­er from Col­lege Year­book Pho­tos and Lat­er Career Suc­cess”, pub­lished in Social Psy­cho­log­i­cal and Per­son­al­i­ty Sci­ence.

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For more infor­ma­tion, please con­tact:

Nicholas Rule
Depart­ment of Psy­chol­o­gy
Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to

Sean Bet­tam
Fac­ul­ty of Arts & Sci­ence
Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to