Best Face Forward

No makeup, no promotion? You may not want to hear this, but a new Harvard study says to get ahead, get out the blusher.

best face forward marie claire at work harvard study
(Image credit: Archives)

A little lipstick can go miles in the attraction department. But how can it—or a spot of mascara or blush—help you climb the ladder at work? Recent studies from Harvard University, Massachusetts General Hospital, and P&G Beauty (makers of CoverGirl) look at how varying styles of makeup can affect perception. "It plays into the power of adornment," says Harvard psychologist Nancy Etcoff, Ph.D., the studies' lead author. "We've talked a lot about beauty's evolution and biology, but those are genetic givens. In this research, we proved that you can take those features and significantly alter how you're perceived—how much people like you, how confident you appear—using just makeup. It's really astonishing." What's more, a separate study in American Economic Review found that employers expect physically attractive workers to perform better and be more competent at their jobs. So how can you use makeup to your benefit? Here, Etcoff distills her findings and shares some career-building insights that have never been published, until now.


"In social psychology, people automatically evaluate others on two universal dimensions: One is power—that's where confidence, status, and attractiveness come into play. The other is warmth—that's your cooperativeness, altruism, trust, and likability," says Etcoff. "We assumed that makeup would make women look more attractive and confident, and it did. But we weren't sure how it would play into warmth. Turns out some makeup does have an effect: When we showed pictures of the subjects for an unlimited period of time, the [fairly neutral] Natural and Professional looks increased people's judgments on likability and trust. The Sexy [smoky eyes] and Glamorous [red lips] looks were rated significantly less trustworthy." Bottom line: If you need to earn trust (e.g., you're a doctor or social worker), opt to enhance your look simply—think concealer, mascara, natural blush. If you want to exude power, say, in a corporate sales presentation, a stronger makeup look will command more attention.

best face forward marie claire at work harvard study

(Image credit: Archives)


"It was really striking to see the difference between the quick glance and longer impressions," remarks Etcoff. "When we just flashed the faces, all the made-up looks showed a positive effect in adding to competence, likability, and attractiveness, meaning that in a very brief first impression, any makeup is helpful. It suggests that there is an automatic, unthinking level where we're even more responsive to makeup than we realize." Account for this when attaching photos to online profiles like LinkedIn or Facebook, where potential employers or colleagues can glance through images of you quickly.


"In one scenario, we specifically asked our raters, 'Would you hire this person?' Not surprisingly, we found that the Professional and Natural looks came out highest. But, in fact, all the looks got a slight bump compared with No Makeup, except for the Sexy look—that actually moved the needle in a slightly negative direction."


Are you addressing a Silicon Valley startup or meeting with the partners of a conservative law firm? "We often talk about display rules—in some situations it's OK to smile really broadly, and in others you want to be more muted. It depends on the corporate context, and the same rules apply to makeup," explains Etcoff, who also points out that various age groups related differently to the five looks. "To raters over 40, the Glamorous look was more familiar and more elegant versus the Sexy look—Sexy was less familiar, hence they were not as comfortable with it. Raters in their 20s and 30s responded most positively to the Natural look." Etcoff attributes this to the generally more casual work environments of the younger generation.

best face forward marie claire at work harvard study

(Image credit: Archives)


The models in their 30s ranked the most favorably across all categories. If you don't fall into this window, there's an opportunity to use makeup to your advantage: "Overall, the Sexy look made people look about six months younger than they actually were. The Glamorous look made models look, on average, about one year older." But keep in mind that Sexy also rated as least dependable and stable.


"We looked at male versus female judges and found that makeup had a slightly more positive impact on women than men, which is somewhat surprising." Etcoff explains that the women raters—particularly women who considered themselves attractive—were more critical in general. So although women have come a long way in the corporate world, high school Mean Girl rules may, unfortunately, still apply.

*In the study, 25 women, ages 20 to 50, of various ethnic backgrounds, were made up in five levels of intensity, from No Makeup to Sexy. Their photos were shown to two groups of evaluators, men and women, for 0.25 seconds (250 milliseconds) or an unlimited amount of time. The subjects were rated on factors including competence, attractiveness, likability, and trustworthiness.

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