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Don’t knock the face : It says more than you think

Don’t knock the face : It says more than you think

There's a lot more to a face than you might think.

When was the last time you judged somebody by the way they look? Perhaps the last time you visited a new city you asked someone who you thought looked friendly for directions. What made you approach that person over someone else? If we are honest with ourselves, we will admit to making judgments of people based solely on their appearance, despite being warned to ‘never judge a book by its cover’.

Physiognomic Faces

Figure 1. An example of physiognomic drawings from the 18th century. Reference: http://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/obf_images/f2/b3/54bd71e8e8c40b99862e811a16b9.jpg

However, have been judging others on their appearance for as long as we have been human. The Ancient Greeks thought there was a relationship between facial appearance and personality, known as physiognomy, – and this idea was considered a scientific discipline until the 19th century (see Figure 1 for an example of physiognomic illustrations). Charles Darwin’s voyage on the H.M.S Beagle, instrumental in the development of his theory of evolution, was almost curtailed by these ideas. Robert FitzRoy, a firm believer in physiognomy, felt that Darwin’s nose indicated that he ‘did not possess sufficient energy and determination for the voyage’, and strongly considered not taking him. These judgments clearly carry important consequences! Though physiognomy later became discredited, we are still making judgments about other people based on their facial appearance within moments of meeting them, and with lasting effect. Why might this be?

At the psychology department in Bangor University, I studied the possibly that the human face might be a signalling system containing information about our personality. In nature, a signal arises because it alters the behaviour of receivers, who similarly have evolved to pay attention to the signal. Imagine an insect that warns predators not to eat it through bright colouration, a signal of its toxic nature. Predators avoid consuming the insect through either experience or selection. If there are signals of personality in the face, it could influence our social interactions in every way from determining who to associate with, who to avoid, and who to pursue romantically. The existence of personality signals in the face might explain why we make judgments of people so readily – because there is important information present that could be useful in our interactions with an individual.


Figure 2. Which of these individuals do you think talks more at parties?
Image produced by the author.

Look at the faces in Figure 2. Which of these individuals do you think talks to more people at parties? You were most likely correct in your guess (answer at the bottom!). These faces do not belong to any one person, but instead are composite faces, comprised of several individuals. The people who make up one of the faces are individuals who score high on the personality trait Extraversion, while the faces in the other score very low, i.e. they are introvert. Averaging the faces of those with similar personalities reveals they seem to share a common facial appearance that we can discriminate. This surprising accuracy seems to be present for the personality dimensions Agreeableness, or how friendly or selfish someone might be, as well as Neuroticism, or how calm or worrisome an individual is. There seems to be a ‘kernel of truth’ to our judgments of other people, as some aspects of personality are reflected in our faces – judging a book by its cover isn’t such a bad thing overall. That person you approached for directions because they looked friendly – were they?

There is much work to be done in this area to fully understand how our faces impact our social interactions. Research has shown we can accurately discern traits like aggression, health, sexual orientation, depression, and dominance in top of core personality traits. But there are some outstanding questions future research will need to answer. It is clear the face contains some signals to our probable behaviour, but signals do not always need to be honest! Consider again the insect that is colourful and toxic. There exist many examples in nature of animals mimicking the colouration of more dangerous animals, but reaping the benefits of their appearance – in this case, not being eaten. Why would it benefit a person to appear unfriendly, or shy, or worrisome, when we prize the opposites of those traits in people? Perhaps acting ‘out of line’ with your appearance was met by harsh punishments in our evolutionary past as it is deceptive. It is also possible there is no link biological between appearance and behaviour. Perhaps the way we respond to certain facial appearances shapes personality – if we treat somebody who looks outgoing in a socially positive way, then could they become more outgoing? In this case, our faces set us on a self – fulfilling prophecy from the day we are born.

There is certainly not enough evidence to suggest that we should judge everyone on his or her face. This accuracy seems to work in the case of extreme personality types but whether it exists for faces average on a particular trait is unknown. There are also many other hypotheses that may explain our propensity to judge people on their appearance. But, regardless of how we are able to accurately perceive personality from the face, our ability to do so means it will influence our cognition. Its up to you to decide whether you believe your first impressions of somebody – but there is a good chance it might be correct.

Correct answer: The face on the right is the extraverted one.

21st Century Stats

Originally launched: 1999.

Relaunched: January 1st, 2016.

Contributors: 70 contributors including futurists, engineers, teachers, writers, 23 doctors and 7 professors.

Created by: Clifford White.

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