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Facing Off Across the Table:
Negotiators’ Facial Features Affect
the Agreements They Reach
Kathleen O’Connor & Margaret Ormiston
Editors’ Note: Does your face determine your fortune at the bargaining table? Some of us profoundly hope not; but O’Connor and Ormiston review work from economics, psychology, and organizational behavior, and find three categories of facial features that have been found to make a difference. Each of these facial features has a unique and important effect in 19 negotiation. In particular, these facial features affect how counterparts perceive negotiators.
What is the first thing you notice when you meet someone? If you are like most people, the answer is: the other person’s face (Willis and Todorov 2006). How attractive is it, you might think, or more subtly, does this person look tough or friendly, or do I get the feeling that this is someone I can trust? Scholars point to evolutionary reasons for our tendency to make quick judgments of a stranger’s intentions and capabilities based on their facial features (Fiske, Cuddy and Glick 2006). Studies show that our first impressions of others are powerful, lasting, and very much shaped by how we interpret their facial features (McGugin and Gauthier 2013: 165; Vernon et al. 2014).
While the link between facial features and person perception is well documented in other social settings—criminal courts, elections, dating markets—negotiation researchers have been slow to investigate how and what kinds of visual cues might matter at the bargaining table. In fact, as a quick scan of a recent review of the negotiation literature reveals, very limited work has considered facial features as a potentially important variable to consider (Thompson, Wang and Gunia 2010; but see Gladstone and O’Connor 2014; Haselhuhn et al. 2014).
In this chapter, we fill this gap by reviewing what we currently know about whether and how negotiators’ facial features—either their own features (i.e., the target) or their counterparts’ perceptions of their features (i.e., the observer)—make a small but non-trivial difference. Because the literature in this area is modest in scope and depth, we broaden our review to consider not just negotiation research, but also work in non-negotiation settings as well as results from research on economic games. We consider three categories of facial features that dominate the current literature: 1) attractiveness, 2) femininity, and 3) facial structure (the ratio of face width to height). For each, we define the category, note the state of the literature in economics, psychology, and organizations, and describe the current state of bargaining and negotiation research in the category. We note how context makes a difference in how facial features are interpreted and affect the course of negotiations, and throughout we offer recommendations for practitioners.
Given the decades-long empirical and experimental literature in economics and psychology that documents the benefits that flow to more attractive people at work and in life (for review, see Hamermesh 2011), it is perhaps unsurprising that early forays into the role of negotiators’ facial features focused on beauty (Solnick and Schweitzer 1999). A consistent finding in this literature has been that attractive people earn more money than those who are less attractive (Hamermesh and Biddle 1994) (for exception, see Deryugina and Shurchkov 2015). This “beauty premium” is well and widely documented: whether we consider NFL quarterbacks (Berri et al. 2011)1or lawyers (Biddle and Hamermesh 1998) or wait staff (Parrett 2015), those who are more attractive earn more than those who are judged to be less attractive2. The effects apply to both men and women, as both enjoy a beauty premium as well as suffer from what scholars call a “plainness penalty” (Hamermesh and Biddle 1994).
Beyond documenting the benefits of being beautiful, researchers also have worked to understand the mechanisms that explain why we see these effects. One line of research posits that facial attractiveness evokes...
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