How to hold your head if you want to look intimidating

Painting your face like a lion and roaring at others is also a fine alternative.
Painting your face like a lion and roaring at others is also a fine alternative.
Image: AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin
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So often, when we go about holding our heads upon our necks, we fail to consider how our posture is communicating our professional ambition—nay, our superiority.

Big mistake! With that kind of attitude, how are we supposed to make our colleagues—or as powerful people like to think of them, “future minions”—scurry away in awe and fear?

Thankfully, a new study, published in the June 2019 issue of the journal Psychological Science, is here to tell us how to hold our heads more intimidatingly. Sort of a “no-makeup makeup” technique for getting people to do your bidding, if you will.

Over the course of five experiments with a total of 1,517 subjects, researchers at the University of British Columbia found that people who appeared in photographs with their heads tilted downward—wearing otherwise-neutral expressions—were perceived as more dominant than people with their heads held straight-ahead or tilting upward.

The secret appears to lie in the eyebrows: Tilting your head down “causes the eyebrows to take on an apparent V-shape and become lowered,” the study’s authors explain, a feature that previous research has shown makes people seem ”high ranking and physically strong, threatening, or dominant.”

Study participants reviewed images of people with their heads held at three different angles.
Study participants reviewed images of people with their heads held at three different angles.
Image: Zak Witkower

To be clear, the study’s authors, Zachary Witkower and Jessica L. Tracy, aren’t recommending that we wage psychological warfare on one another via head tilts. Rather, they say the study is important because it establishes that simply lowering our heads mimics the appearance of actively using our forehead muscles so that the eyebrows are brought down and together. In the world of facial expressions, that gesture is known as “Action Unit 4,” and it’s believed to make people appear higher-status.

The University of British Columbia authors acknowledge that other research has found that tilting the head down can also send an appeasing message. Holding the head at a downward angle may make people appear smaller and thereby less threatening, or make the lips appear to smile. Their findings, however, suggest that the downward head tilt may inspire intimidation because it mimics the appearance of a wider, shorter face. (Research has found that greater facial width-to-height ratios are linked with increased aggression in men, according to a 2015 meta-analysis.)

Now, like Frankenstein’s monster, their discovery has been let loose upon the world. And the head-tilting technique outlined in the study seems very simple to achieve.

First, make your expression neutral, like the 😐 emoji. You can do this by thinking of things that are boring yet calming: Washing a dish. The documentary about a pea-canning factory that your significant other insisted you watch for some reason. The new sofa collection at West Elm.

Yes, perfect, that looks great.

Next, tilt your head downward, so your eyebrows look nice and V-like, like the 😠 emoji but without the frown. Keep your facial muscles relaxed.

Now just stand there peacefully, looking like a goddamn leader.

The nice thing about this approach is that you don’t even have to conjure any mental energy to communicate your innate power. You can just use your head. This gives you plausible deniability when your boss walks by you in the hallway, pauses nervously, and says, “I’m sorry, I feel like I owe you a check-in. Do you need anything from me?”

“A coffee would be nice,” you say while lifting your head back to its normal straight-ahead position, so that your boss can see how neutral and non-threatening you are.

“Coming right up,” your boss says. He returns a few minutes later, holding a mug in one hand and fumbling a stack of papers in his other. A few documents scatter on the floor. “I’m … I’m not feeling well. I’m going to take the rest of the day off. Can you meet with that important client for me?”

You lower your head, taking care to suppress a smile. You let your angles do your work for you. “Of course.”