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Some People May Be Bad to the Bone

Men who have wider faces relative to their facial height are more likely to engage in unethical behavior, according to a new study in the latest issue of the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
/ Source: Discovery Channel

Men who have wider faces relative to their facial height are more likely to engage in unethical behavior, according to a new study in the latest issue of the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

The finding adds to the growing body of evidence that an individual's genes and hormonal development can influence that person's behavior. The research also supports that certain static physical characteristics — in this case, a man's facial bone structure — may serve as reliable visual cues to behavior.

"Other researchers have found that differences in facial width-to-height ratio (WHR) emerge around puberty," co-author Michael Haselhuhn told Discovery News. "As sex differences in facial structure, generally, are at least partially due to increased testosterone concentrations in boys, testosterone likely plays a role in determining facial WHR, specifically, as well."

Haselhuhn, an assistant professor in the Lubar School of Business at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, said the new data indicates high WHRs tend to be those greater than 1.9.

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"Historical examples of men falling into this general range are John F. Kennedy (2.15), Richard Nixon (2.02), and Ken Lay (1.86)," he said, adding that Bill Clinton (2.07) and John Edwards (2.38) also exhibit the trait and "have notably been caught in ethically-compromising positions."

Low WHRs, on the other hand, tend to be lower than 1.7.

"Men with low WHRs, such as John Lennon (1.63) tend to have longer rather than narrower faces," he explained. "George 'I cannot tell a lie' Washington (1.75) and William Shakespeare (1.44) also have low WHR's, though it is difficult to gather precise measurements from painted portraits."

For the study, Haselhuhn and colleague Elaine Wong conducted two experiments. In the first, 192 Masters of Business Administration students participated in a negotiation buyer-seller exercise. The researchers monitored whether or not the buyers explicitly misstated their intentions to the sellers.

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"While there were no tangible rewards for performing well in the negotiation, students are always highly motivated to perform well as the negotiation results are publicly posted to the class," he said.

The researchers determined that unethical behavior in the exercise could be predicted by the WHR of men, but not women, although women also cheated.

For the second study, 103 participants played a dice rolling game, this time playing for a chance to win a $50 gift card. Both men and women reported dice rolls significantly higher than rolls expected by chance, but again, only high WHR in men emerged as a predictor of cheating.

"Our analyses indicate that this effect was driven by men's sense of power," Haselhuhn said. "Men with relatively larger WHRs felt more powerful and, in turn, this sense of power directly predicted the overstatement of the reported dice rolls."

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The effect does not seem to apply to women, probably because they are "not subject to the same selection pressures," he said. "Men with relatively wider faces are more aggressive and self-interested, which allows them to secure a greater share of resources when competing with other men."

In fact, Haselhuhn has paper coming out soon in the journal Psychological Science, which "found that men with larger WHR's are better leaders. Specifically, the facial structure of Fortune 500 CEOs predicts firm financial performance, such that CEOs with relatively wider faces achieve greater financial success for their firm."

Adam Galinsky, a professor of ethics and decision in management at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, and a leading expert on research concerning what drives human power and ethics, told Discovery News that he agrees with the new paper's conclusions. Haselhuhn and Wong, he says, "have captured a genetic component of unethical behavior and also nicely demonstrate that it is driven through a psychological variable: a sense of power."

"Although the effect is reliable, it explains less than 10 percent of the variance in how people behave," he added, explaining that it instead establishes that a link exists between "physical and hormonal bases of aggressiveness and self-concern, and how those bases affect a sense of power.

"But my research and that of many others also show that many things can moderate this sense of power, such as being accountable, feeling connected to others, clear standards for morality, and more," he concluded. "So greater WHR does not destine someone to unethical behavior."