The Boss Effect: Study Shows Chinese Recognize Their Boss's Face Before Their Own


A small study published in the journal PLoS One, titled “Who’s Afraid of the Boss,” reveals key cultural differences in the way people react to their superiors. The study notes a particularly stark difference between Chinese and Americans. Researchers in both countries showed subjects a rapid series of photographs, asking them to press a button either when they recognized themselves or their boss. The abstract states:

Human adults typically respond faster to their own face than to the faces of others. However, in Chinese participants, this self-face advantage is lost in the presence of one’s supervisor, and they respond faster to their supervisor’s face than to their own.

Americans, on the other hand, are predictably different in light of a cultural emphasis on independence rather than collectivism.

We found that European Americans, unlike Chinese participants, did not show a “boss effect” and maintained the self-face advantage even in the presence of their supervisor’s face. Interestingly, however, their self-face advantage decreased as their ratings of their boss’s perceived social status increased, suggesting that self-processing in Americans is influenced more by one’s social status than by one’s hierarchical position as a social superior.

The study concludes with some thoughts on the nature of power and hierarchy:

Specifically, we suggest that the concept of a “boss” may hold vastly different meanings for individuals from East Asian versus Western cultures, representing a personal social threat in the former and general social dominance in the latter.


This seems very strange to me, since I've always had a real problem believing that photographs of me are in fact of me. I don't look like that at all :-)

Dan S.

Haha. I guess if the above respondent had participated, he would have been more of an outlier in their study! And with only 20 American and 20 Chinese participants, that outlier would matter. Unless, of course, his subjective impression after even a few moments of deliberation is different from his quick, automatic response, as if often the case with participants. I would like to see a replication of this study with a larger sample size and a non-student population, just to test the extent to which we have evidence that this effect can be found more generally. For example, would we expect people occupying different socioeconomic backgrounds to respond differently? What would we expect for Chinese Americans with different degrees of acculturation? For other ethnic or racial groups within the US? For people who were actually directly financially dependent on their supervisor? For people who had worked more years with their supervisor? But, while these questions have yet to be answered, yay to the slow advancement of science!



Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell, has a fascinating chapter on different cultures' reverence of their bosses (or some such phraseology) and how it leads to crappy airlines. In specific, he recounts how a Korean Air Lines pilot flew his jet off course into a mountain in the Phillipines while his co-pilot and navigator respectfully hemmed and hawed. Great read for Freakonomics fans (I suspect most of you know the book).


On further reflection (pun intended), how many of us spend much time looking at our face? We see reflections in a mirror, which (unless we are one of the outliers with very symmetrical faces) are not at all the same, and even then usually pay attention to detail - the place to be shaved, the mote in the eye - rather than the whole. So unless we are narcissistic enough to collect photo albums of ourselves, why would we have enough familiarity with our own faces to recognize them in a photograph?

And that's not even considering the difficulty of recognizing ANYONE from a still photo.


I'm not so sure so does anyone know for sure if when they say "European Americans" that they mean 'White" Americans'? Or do they mean "Europeans AND Americans" are the ones, apart from the Chinese, that the study was done on? (yes, 'I' know not all Europeans are white).


Big conclusions based on weak data, even if you ignore the size of the study. The study did not consider how often the participants look in the mirror on a daily basis. Since European American men are more likely to shave and women more likely to wear makeup ( I think) than their Chinese counterparts, they should have accounted for that.

Another factor that cannot be ignored when doing facial studies is beauty. Are more "beautiful"
people more likely to become bosses? Especially in Chinese culture? They added coworkers, lab mates as a control, but they did not account for the attractiveness of the coworkers. What if the coworker was much more attractive than the boss?


1) Was the effect controlled for male underling/male boss, male underling/woman boss, woman underling/male boss, woman underling/woman boss? I bet not, with such a small sample, but I can't imagine that this effect (if any) is similar for men and for women.

2) In my mid-forties, I've lived in three countries and had something like 10-15 direct supervisors, with many more "bosses" to whom they reported and some "dotted-line reports" too. That's a different experience of each "boss" than someone who'd had the same "boss" for years. No idea if the test subjects reported directly to their "bosses" or were looking at pictures of, say, some senior manager who might have been a level or two above them in the hierarchy? Or how long the subjects had reported to or known their bosses? What about people who work remotely from their bosses and rarely see them?

[edited after reading abstract] In fact, since the experiment was done on "college students," it may be less of a "boss effect" than a "professor effect." Hard to say how applicable these findings would be to the workplace, even if they have found college students with workplace bosses.