What does a moral leader look like? Well, nothing in particular; they could be any race, gender, or age. But they do seem to have one thing in common: According to a new study, they're more often depicted looking up and to the viewer's right, perhaps because we associate that pose with social progress.
If this sounds familiar, it might be because of a now iconic image of Barack Obama, "a stylized red and blue rendition of Obama, with his head tilted up and to the viewer’s right," write University of Winnipeg psychologists Jeremy Frimer and Lisa Sinclair in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
That pose, the researchers argue, "was no coincidence," but instead is at least in part the result of moral leaders' followers choosing and propagating images that hint at warmth, personal pride, and gazing toward the future. Such traits, past research suggests, are best expressed by people who are looking up rather than down, and looking right rather than left.
Up-and-right poses evoked heroism, warmth, competency, and future orientation.
To test their ideas, Frimer and Sinclair first asked 158 Americans to identify three moral heroes and three celebrities from the past 100 years. After gathering images of the five top moral heroes—Martin Luther King, for example—and celebrities from Web searches, they had two assistants take note of which of nine directions participants were looking—left and up, for example, or right with a level gaze.
About 14 percent of the images of moral heroes depicted them looking up and to the right, slightly more often than you'd expect their gaze to be focused in a random direction, and more than twice as often as celebrities looked up and right. Apart from the up-and-right gaze, moral leaders also tended to look straight ahead more often than chance (about a third of the images), though less often than celebrities (43 percent of the pictures).
Clearly something's going on. Partly, a lot of photos of famous people are portraits—hence the large number of images with a straight-on gaze. But people also choose different images depending on their purposes, Frimer and Sinclair argue. In a second experiment, they asked 412 people to pick one of nine images of a man, each corresponding to a different direction of gaze, either for the purposes of promoting a social cause or to include in a job application.
In the social cause condition, participants chose an up-and-right pose almost 20 percent of the time and a straight-ahead pose 22 percent of the time, while participants in the job-application condition chose up-and-right photos 10 percent of the time and straight-ahead pictures 29 percent of the time, consistent with differences between moral hero and celebrity photos on the Web. A third experiment suggested up-and-right poses evoked heroism, warmth, competency, and future orientation.
Curiously, politicians tend to be shown looking to the left, which is "precisely the opposite direction that the present findings suggest they ought to face," the authors write. "Politicians and other social leaders may benefit from a careful selection of portraiture."
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