Since behavioral scientists and psychologists first began roaming the globe we have come to know how and (sometimes) why visual appearance is so important in human interactions. Of course, anecdotally, humans have known this for thousands of years — that image is everything. After all it, was not Mary Kay or L’Oreal who brought us make-up but the ancient Egyptians. Yet, it is still fascinating to see how markedly the perception of an individual can change with a basic alteration, and only at the surface. Witness the profound difference in characteristics that we project onto a male with male pattern baldness (wimp) when he shaves his head (tough guy). And, of course, corporations can now assign a monetary value to the shaven look. As for comb-overs, well that is another topic entirely.
Up for a promotion? If you’re a man, you might want to get out the clippers.
Men with shaved heads are perceived to be more masculine, dominant and, in some cases, to have greater leadership potential than those with longer locks or with thinning hair, according to a recent study out of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.
That may explain why the power-buzz look has caught on among business leaders in recent years. Venture capitalist and Netscape founder Marc Andreessen, 41 years old, DreamWorks Animation Chief Executive Jeffrey Katzenberg, 61, and Amazon.com Inc. CEO Jeffrey Bezos, 48, all sport some variant of the close-cropped look.
Some executives say the style makes them appear younger—or at least, makes their age less evident—and gives them more confidence than a comb-over or monk-like pate.
“I’m not saying that shaving your head makes you successful, but it starts the conversation that you’ve done something active,” says tech entrepreneur and writer Seth Godin, 52, who has embraced the bare look for two decades. “These are people who decide to own what they have, as opposed to trying to pretend to be something else.”
Wharton management lecturer Albert Mannes conducted three experiments to test peoples’ perceptions of men with shaved heads. In one of the experiments, he showed 344 subjects photos of the same men in two versions: one showing the man with hair and the other showing him with his hair digitally removed, so his head appears shaved.
In all three tests, the subjects reported finding the men with shaved heads as more dominant than their hirsute counterparts. In one test, men with shorn heads were even perceived as an inch taller and about 13% stronger than those with fuller manes. The paper, “Shorn Scalps and Perceptions of Male Dominance,” was published online, and will be included in a coming issue of journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.
The study found that men with thinning hair were viewed as the least attractive and powerful of the bunch, a finding that tracks with other studies showing that people perceive men with typical male-pattern baldness—which affects roughly 35 million Americans—as older and less attractive. For those men, the solution could be as cheap and simple as a shave.
According to Wharton’s Dr. Mannes—who says he was inspired to conduct the research after noticing that people treated him more deferentially when he shaved off his own thinning hair—head shavers may seem powerful because the look is associated with hypermasculine images, such as the military, professional athletes and Hollywood action heroes like Bruce Willis. (Male-pattern baldness, by contrast, conjures images of “Seinfeld” character George Costanza.)
New York image consultant Julie Rath advises her clients to get closely cropped when they start thinning up top. “There’s something really strong, powerful and confident about laying it all bare,” she says, describing the thinning or combed-over look as “kind of shlumpy.”
The look is catching on. A 2010 study from razor maker Gillette, a unit of Procter & Gamble Co., found that 13% of respondents said they shaved their heads, citing reasons as varied as fashion, sports and already thinning hair, according to a company spokesman. HeadBlade Inc., which sells head-shaving accessories, says revenues have grown 30% a year in the past decade.
Shaving his head gave 60-year-old Stephen Carley, CEO of restaurant chain Red Robin Gourmet Burgers Inc., a confidence boost when he was working among 20-somethings at tech start-ups in the 1990s. With his thinning hair shorn, “I didn’t feel like the grandfather in the office anymore.” He adds that the look gave him “the impression that it was much harder to figure out how old I was.”