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How leaders look: Competent and trustworthy, but not dominant

Friday, November 22, 2013
posted by Rita Handrich

how leaders lookTwo weeks ago we did a mock trial with a group of attorneys who were passionate about their case and yet got along very well with each other. It was a high-adrenalin experience that lasted 48 hours. On the morning of the second day, the Plaintiff attorney went into the presentation room a little early and sat down. There was good-natured commenting from his colleagues in the observation room that he was trying to influence the jurors.

Suddenly, one of the jurors complimented him on his necktie and others (all middle-aged women) chimed in as well. The attorney smiled and said he had three daughters and the middle daughter picked out his ties. There was uproar in the observation room as the opposing attorney’s protested the unfairness of this personal interaction with the jurors. When the Plaintiff attorney returned to the observation room after his presentation, he grinned and stroked his (very attractive) tie as his colleagues griped about ‘undue influence’. Later, we found multiple comments on written questionnaires about how “very, very likable” the “first attorney” was for the mock jurors.

We always assess likability, credibility, and trustworthiness as mock jurors view witness deposition excerpts and assess the attorney’s presentations. But new research on ‘what leaders look like’ has us contemplating adding dominance to this lineup of personal characteristics assessed by our mock jurors. Apparently, dominance cuts both ways, but competence and trustworthiness are a golden pairing.

Researchers from the University of Delaware examined how participants inferred personality traits of political candidates based on looking at their faces. According to these researchers, the literature on competence, trust and dominance is very mixed.

Some studies show that a first impression of dominance can lead to positive social outcomes in real life for politicians and CEOs, and even managing partners of the top 100 law firms in the US. Others show that impressions of dominance can backfire when people resent feeling controlled by dominant leaders. The authors think there is a fine line between when dominance feels like competence and when it veers off into feeling like coercion. They also report multiple studies have combined dominance and competence into a single composite score and this, opine the researchers, could mean dominance is given credit for positive outcomes that should be explained by competency.

So, the researchers designed their studies to separately assess dominance and competence inferences made when participants examined photos of faces of candidates for the U.S. Senate. The outcome measure was whether the candidate actually won their election in the real world. Findings were consistent across three studies:

Being seen as trustworthy increased the chance the candidate actually won the election, but only if they were also perceived as competent.

Being seen as dominant increased the chance the candidate won the election, but only if they were also perceived as competent. When competence perceptions were controlled, dominance was not related to electoral success.

The researchers say that when you are highly competent, if you also “look trustworthy”, this increases your chances of positive outcome. And when you are perceived as dominant, it can create a backlash against you (when benefits associated with competence are removed) due to the possibility of fear (on the part of voters) of an authoritarian leadership style. In these studies, candidates who were seen as dominant, were also seen as being unlikable and untrustworthy.

The analogy that came to my mind as I read this material involved driving a car. If you drive authoritatively—then you are fast, aggressive, and dominant. It’s a high-risk approach that works well in the minds of some people as long as you are a really good driver. But the risk of doing harm is far greater with someone like that than it is for someone who is less dominant and aggressive.

It’s an intriguing characteristic to ponder in the litigation setting. We have assessed trustworthiness, credibility and likability for years now. But dominance? It would be an intriguing wrinkle for us to consider.

What about a witness leads jurors to assess him or her as dominant?

Is that a good thing in litigation or a bad thing like in political candidacy?

In the particular mock trial noted above, jurors tended to think the Plaintiff attorney’s case was more credible. But they also liked his tie and his story of his middle daughter picking out his ties. He was likable and he created a friendly connection. He was competent. And in the mock juror’s perceptions–he was also dominating his opponents. This is one we will consider at length in designing new research questions and strategies.

As an aside and unrelated to this research [although not to the larger issue], apparently leaders also look like men. An image search for “how leaders look” came up with entirely male faces. To see female faces, we had to select “famous women leaders”. While it’s hard to miss Oprah gracing this post, the question of why women don’t look like leaders is likely a whole ‘nother post.

Chen, FF, Jing, Y., & Lee, JM (2013). The looks of a leader: Competent and trustworthy, but not dominant. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2013.10.008


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