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Pictures and profits

What your college yearbook photo could say about your future success
|Written By Olivia D’Orazio
Pictures and profits
Robert C. Sheehan of Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom LLP

Researchers at the University of Toronto and Tufts University in Boston, Mass., have discovered that college yearbook photos of law firm managing partners are positively correlated to that partner’s firm profitability sometimes 40 years later.

U of T’s Nicholas Rule and Nalini Ambady, of Tufts, have found that law firms were more profitable when led by managing partners whose college yearbook photo was perceived as powerful. In a report titled “Judgments of Power From College Yearbook Photos and Later Career Success,” they present their experiment for determining this relationship.

Rule and Ambady collected both college undergraduate yearbook photos and current portraits of each managing partner of 73 of the top 100 American law firms of 2007. A group of undergraduates at Tufts rated one of either the current or the yearbook photo from one to seven based on four components: facial dominance, facial maturity, likeability, and trustworthiness. The first two attributes were combined to form a “power composite,” while the latter two were combined to form a “warmth composite.”

These features, as Rule tells 4Students, are self-defining. “There is no facial feature to define likeability or trustworthiness,” he says. “These are self-defining features [and] people tend to agree on these because they’re pretty general.”

Rule and Ambady found the managing partners who garnered high scores in the power composite were among those with the highest profit margins. This trend was noticed with both the current photos and the old yearbook photos.

What makes these findings particularly interesting is that the managing partners’ yearbook photos and their current photos were rated about the same in terms of this “power composite,” which was then correlated with high firm profit margins. So even before they’d gone to law school, their successful future was written all over the faces of these high-powered lawyers.

Previous research has found that people adopt their behaviour from their social environment — family, friends, and spouses. As people’s behaviour changes, so does the muscle tone in their faces, changing the way they look. If a person smiles a lot, he or she will look happier even when they are not smiling. If someone has an angry disposition, he or she will have an angry-looking face.

“It’s called the ‘Dorian Gray effect,’” says Rule. “It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Rule mentions a previous study that found teachers’ expectations of certain students guided their approach towards them. If a child looked like a leader, the teacher would subconsciously provide more opportunities for that child to develop his or her role as a leader.

The yearbook photo study chose to examine managing partners — those in strong, leadership roles who have most likely been promoted within the law firm rather than hired laterally.

Rule says North Americans tend to value traits of dominance and power, especially in our leaders. They have a stronger appreciation for someone with a greater capacity for exerting influence on others. And they look for this in a leader’s face.

In law, a managing partner is often internally promoted to essentially run the firm. Oftentimes, this person is selected because he or she looks like she would make a good leader, says Rule.

Does this mean a person is predisposed to a successful career in law based on how he or she looks? According to the researchers’ report, “it seems more likely that innate appearance and life experiences work in concert to shape facial appearance in a way that predicts outcomes.”

Among the most powerful managing partners rated were John Montgomery of Ropes & Gray LLP, Kenneth Doran of Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP, and Robert C. Sheehan of Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom LLP.

Having a powerful or dominant-looking face often causes people to infer that person is powerful or dominant and then treat him or her as such. These findings suggest that, in western culture, “dominance and power are strongly associated with perceived leadership abilities as well as with leadership performance outcomes.” However, Rule maintains that these findings should not be misinterpreted as indicating that one’s face determines one’s fate.

“I wouldn’t want these results to be perceived as a predestination,” he explains. “They are meant to imply that, while your face is not your fate, how you look can be an advantage.”

“Judgments of Power From College Yearbook Photos and Later Career Success” can be found in Social Psychological & Personality Science.

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