It has long been understood that, for men with thinning hair, the comb-over is rarely a wise choice. In fact, thanks to recent research by Wharton School lecturer Albert Mannes, there is now evidence that men who embrace baldness by shaving their heads can seem more dominant, confident, and masculine than those who let hair loss run its natural course.
Mannes' research was inspired by his own experience after he shaved his head in his mid-30s and noticed that people reacted to him differently.
"They were more standoffish and, on a few occasions, even deferential," he said in an e-mail.
Because baldness is so often associated with lack of social standing, Mannes found this behavior curious, and decided to research the question.
In three studies, Mannes asked participants to assess photographs of various men with different hairstyles, ranging from full heads of hair to shaved heads. Participants rated the men on attributes including dominance, confidence, height, attractiveness, masculinity, leadership, strength, and to what extent they violated social norms.
The results indicated that men with shaved heads were generally thought of as more dominant, confident, and masculine. In one study, men with shaved heads were even seen as, on average, 13 percent stronger and an inch taller than men with hair.
Mannes' research suggests that, in a world that looks down on baldness, a man who chooses to shave his head may be sending a signal that he is confident in his overall abilities and competence.
"I am suggesting that because society places such a high value on physical beauty (and hair is a large part of this), it takes a certain confidence to willingly dispense with one's hair," Mannes wrote in an e-mail. "People make inferences about others who choose this."
And it's not just men who may benefit from declining to adhere to societal standards regarding appearance. Forthcoming work by Silvia Bellezza, a doctoral student at Harvard University, has demonstrated that personnel at high-end fashion stores in Milan saw women wearing gym clothes while shopping as more likely to spend money and be important customers than those that came to the shop wearing a dress and fur coat.
What does this all mean in the workplace? It is not yet clear.
About his own studies, Mannes' points out that "they provide no evidence about the behavioral consequences of these perceptions." Do those perceived as more dominant or more important get ahead? Do employers and business contacts react more positively to such people?
But, he points out, previous research has suggested that people who bargain with those they perceive as more dominant are likely to be more conciliatory; those with shaved heads may then fare better in negotiations.
Those beginning to experience hair loss, Mannes concludes, "might better improve their well-being by finishing what Mother Nature has started."