The "Teddy Bear Effect" for Black CEOs
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Politics & Elections May 1, 2009

The “Teddy Bear Effect” for Black CEOs

Black male CEOS are more successful when their facial features are perceived as less threatening.

Babyfaced CEO seated at table

Lisa Röper

Based on the research of

Robert W. Livingston

Nicholas Pearce

Having a “babyface” affects how both Black and white male CEOs are perceived—but it affects them differently, according to research by Robert Livingston, formerly a professor of management and organizations, and Nicholas Pearce, formerly a graduate student and now a clinical professor of management and organizations at Kellogg.

Rather than focusing on the many systemic reasons why there are so few Black men in the c-suite, Livingston and Pearce sought to focus instead on those Black male leaders who did successfully navigate treacherous cultural corporate terrain.

“This is an interesting case of social hierarchy reversal, with African Americans in charge. That’s not ‘supposed’ to happen, so let’s explore how they ascend in the white world to attain, and maintain, those positions,” said Livingston.

Warm, Innocent, and Trustworthy

Specifically, the researchers wanted to know which traits successful Black male CEOs might have in common. Guided by decades of research, Livingston and Pearce decided to look at babyfacedness.

“Babyfacedness is common across regions, ethnicities, genders—and even species,” said Livingston. “Infants, kittens, puppies—there’s a common progression from infancy to adolescence to sexual maturity. Chubby cheeks, rounder face, smaller nose, larger forehead, fuller, pouty lips; these are hallmarks of babyfaces.”

This quality triggers an adaptive response in people.“If something looks like a baby, we need to treat it like a baby,” Livingston said.

The result is that babyfaced adults are treated differently compared with maturefaced adults. For example, babyfaced adults are considered more warm, innocent, and trustworthy. Indeed, babyfaced offenders tend to receive more lenient sentences. But babyfaces are also considered signs of weakness.

So the researchers wondered how having a babyface might influence people’s perceptions of leaders—as well as whether that perception would differ depending on whether the leaders were Black or white.

Non-Black women and men were shown forty headshot photographs. Though the photographed faces were not recognized by the participants, they were all current or former CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. Ten of the CEOs were Black men. The researchers also included the pictures of the ten white men and women who preceded or followed those Black men as CEO, as well as twenty other white women and men.

“The sample size is somewhat small, with only ten African-American CEOs in the Fortune 500,” Livingston said. “But that’s because it’s not just a sample, but actually the entire population we could find.”

Participants were asked to rate how babyfaced, and also how old, each person appeared. They also rated each in terms of perceived personality traits such as warmth and competence. The participants asked to use those same personality criteria to rate, in general, how they perceive Black and white people. Finally, participants had to guess how much money each person earned.

A Babyface Disarms the Threatened

Black CEOs were rated as being more babyfaced, and having warmer personalities, than the white leaders. This included even those white CEOs who achieved the exact same position at the exact same company as their Black predecessors or successors. To reach the heights of corporate leadership, it appears that Black men must look more babyfaced than white peers.

The more babyfaced the Black CEO, the more participants thought he earned. And this tracked with the real-life earnings of these men. In addition, the more babyfaced the Black CEO, the more prestigious the company he led, as reflected by both Fortune 500 ranking and annual corporate revenue.

Livingston pointed out that while the ten particular Black faces in the photos were considered warmer than the white faces, participants considered Black men as a group to be less warm than white men and women. So the visual influence of babyfaceness clearly shifted perception and the playing field.

“To function effectively as an African-American male in the U.S. you must have a disarming mechanism,” he noted.

The babyfaced Black CEOs, and Black people as a group, were perceived by participants to be less competent leaders than whites.

Babyfacedness did not influence the perceived earnings of white leaders. However, the most babyfaced white CEOs were relegated to lower-rated corporations in terms of revenue and Fortune 500 ranking.

“If babyfaces are seen as less competent, how could that help Blacks?” asked Livingston. “But one African-American CEO said, ‘That makes perfect sense. Something that’s extremely threatening to white males is an extremely competent Black man: someone who could do your job.’”

Featured Faculty

Member of the Department of Management & Organizations faculty until 2013

Clinical Associate Professor of Management & Organizations

About the Writer

Brad Wible was formerly with the Office of Research at the Kellogg School.

About the Research

Livingston, Robert and Nicholas Pearce (in press) “The Teddy Bear Effect: Does Babyfaceness Benefit Black CEOs?”  Psychological Science.

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