Treating People Differently Based on Facial Appearance

Topic(s): fairness
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology (2012)
Article: The Hierarchical Face: Higher Rankings Lead to Less Cooperative Looks
Authors: P. Chen, C.G. Myers, S. Kopelman, S.M. Garcia
Reviewed by: Ben Sher

Recently, researchers (Chen et al., 2012) found that people react differently to high-status individuals after merely looking at their faces. The authors conducted three unique and interesting experiments to arrive at this conclusion.


In the first experiment participants were shown pictures of actual business school deans and were asked to rate them on cooperativeness. The participants were not given any information other than the pictures. The participants ended up rating the deans of the highly-ranked schools as less cooperative than the deans of lower-ranked schools.

In a second experiment, participants were told that they would be competing against a fellow student in a knowledge-bowl game against a student who was from an either distinctly higher or distinctly lower ranked school. Immediately after this, the participant’s picture was taken and a different group of participants rated the people in the pictures on cooperativeness. The participants who were made to feel high-ranked were rated as less cooperative than the students who were made to feel low-ranked, all based on their faces.

In a third experiment, the researchers discovered that the effect does not stop at providing ratings. When people rate someone as uncooperative, they will actually act differently toward that person. Participants not only rated high-ranked business school deans as more uncooperative, but they also behaved differently in a simulated negotiation task with that dean. When the deans were from high-ranked schools, the participants made lower, more compromising initial offers on the negotiation task and estimated that the dean would be less accommodating to their requests.


So what does this mean for the workplace? Although this study used college rankings to differentiate between high and low ranked people, there are other types of rankings too. There may be rankings within an organization, based on status or title, and there may be rankings between organizations, based on factors like reputation. It is important to realize that status can affect the way people perceive you and the way people negotiate with you, which could affect your ability to do business. But if you want to negate the unwanted effects of rankings, you may need to hide more than your job title. You may also have to hide your face.


Chen, P., Myers, C.G., Kopelman, S., & Garcia, S.M. (2012). The Hierarchical Face: Higher Rankings Lead to Less Cooperative Looks. Journal of Applied Psychology, 97(2), 479-486.

Image credit: istockphoto/AndreyPopov