We don’t choose our face, yet it has a powerful effect on our lives.
How do you feel about your own face? What assumptions do others make when they glance at your face? Would you change it if you could?
We have an intangible belief that we can read the truth about someone’s personality by simply looking at their face. We trust these gut instincts, and often make assumptions based on these flawed instincts.
What is beautiful is good, we believe inaccurately. When a face doesn’t look right, we assume there is something fundamentally wrong about the person as well.
But is there some truth to the idea that we can understand someone by examining their features? Science has recently uncovered some interesting findings.
How much can you tell about someone by simply looking at their face?
When we look at a face, we see two components: their dynamic emotional expressions, which are always changing, and the physical structure of their features, which stays the same. This static element is what we’ll be discussing today.
We come to a surprising number of conclusions based on the shape of someone’s features – the line of their jaw, the set of their eyes, the angle of their mouth. The easiest way to demonstrate this is to think of extremes.
A google search for “movie villain” yields the following images:
A mere glance makes you immediately recognize these men as evil. Even though they have neutral facial expressions, the structure of their faces communicates a great deal about who they are. Their eyes are deep set and vacant. There is no sign of empathy or connection. Their faces are deformed, with strange features and scars, and unnatural skin tones. They are each unique in their strangeness. They look hardly human, and it’s deeply unsettling.
What about the opposite example?
Stereotypical heroes are exemplified by these Justice League superheroes:
They all have square faces with an angular jaw and a broad forehead. Their eyes, noses and mouths are average in size, with few distinctive features. They look quite generic, unlike the villains above. They raise their chins, making their faces appear even broader, and look down at you. These are men and women you don’t want to mess with.
What is it about the shape of their faces that makes us assume that these are heroes, rather than villains?
As we’ll see, research does bear out a clear link between the heroes’ faces and their personality.
First, a bit of background
The origins of this idea come from the theory of physiognomy, which has had echoes in popular culture for millennia. In ancient Greece, it was considered a hard science. It has fallen in and out of favour over the years, always with problematic consequences.
How did physiognomy nearly derail Charles Darwin’s fateful trip?
An piece by Wired Magazine.
Physiognomy had a dark resurgence in the Nazi eugenics movement, where the measurement of facial features was used to identify Aryan characteristics, with the goal of creating an “Ubermenschen” master race. This was carried out through forced sterilization and euthanization of “inferior” races, all under the proclaimed justification of “science”.
These days, academics and scientists dismiss physiognomy as mere pseudoscience. In popular culture, however, it continues to be used as a form of personality analysis and fortune-telling, frequently using the theories of traditional Chinese face reading. Amazon has hundreds of books on the topic, but none are supported by evidence-based data.
However, there has been a recent resurgence of interest in this field, with a number of clever and well-designed studies.
Why a square jaw matters
Think back to the superheroes above. One common element between them was the shape of their faces, particularly the ratio between their facial width and height. A surprising amount a research has looked at this particular feature, which is called the facial width-to-height ratio (fWHR).
The fWHR is calculated by measuring the distance between the lip and brow, and dividing it by the width between cheekbones. High-ratio faces have a shorter distance between lip and brow, whereas low-ratio faces have a longer distance, relative to the width of their face.
In the image below, the face on the left has a lower fWHR than the image on the right. At a glance, you can see that it’s longer than it is wide. If the face on the left is the intellectual, the face on the right is the thug.
This is a sexually dimorphic trait, meaning it’s present in men but not women. This is likely due to testosterone, as it only appears following puberty and staying stable through the life span.
Look at the faces of the superheroes above. They all have faces that look wide relative to their heights. If you were to compare them to the image below, their faces looks more like the image on the right (high fWHR) than the image on the left.What does this trait reveal about human behaviour? Let’s review the evidence.
A recent study examined the relationship between men’s facial width-to-height ratio (fWHR) and their level of aggressiveness.
The researchers’ first demonstrated that high facial fWHR was correlated with aggressive behaviour in men, but not in women. They also demonstrated that in elite male hockey players, the fWHR was correlated with the number of penalty minutes per game. That is, hockey players with a higher fWHR tended to have a higher number of penalty minutes, suggesting they got into more fights or were generally more aggressive on the ice.
In their next study, the researchers wanted to know if people could accurately predict how aggressive a man was based only on looking at his face.
A group of men was randomly selected and their level of aggressiveness was measured through the following task:
Players had free access to three buttons. Pressing #1 earned points, pressing #2 protected them from losing points, and pressing #3 stole points from an imaginary opponent without any advantage to the player. The men’s level of aggression was measured by the number of times they pressed the third button. That is, in this paradigm, aggressive men sought to remove points from others even if did not provide a relative competitive advantage. They seemed to simply enjoy taking points away from others.
After the men completed the task, another group of subjects was asked to look at photos of the men’s faces in a neutral expression and answer the following question: ‘‘How aggressive would this person be if provoked?’’.
The results showed that observers could reliably assess a man’s level of aggressiveness by only looking at their face. People also generally agreed on who was more aggressive, even if they only saw the face for a fraction of a second, suggesting that the assessment was instinctive and happened without conscious consideration.
Given that these rapid assessments were also generally quite accurate, this suggests that fWHR may be a cue to predict aggressiveness in others with potential evolutionary advantages.
This is association even holds true in capuchin monkeys. As shown below, monkeys with a higher fWHR (seen on the right) tended to be more dominant and were more likely to be alpha-males than those with a lower fWHR (seen on the left). This suggests that this characteristic may serve as a social signalling tool in all primates, including humans.
What about helping to identify a cheater? Facial WHR plays a role once again.
Another group of researchers examined whether people with a higher fWHR were also more likely to be dishonest. To test this, they gathered MBA students (both male and female) and studied their level of deceptive behaviour.
In the first task, students were asked to form pairs. Each person in the pair was randomly assigned to be a buyer or a seller. The seller’s task was to sell a property to the buyer. The buyer could agree to the sale, but only if they felt certain that the property would not be used for commercial purposes. The seller, unbeknownst to the buyer, was planning to turn the property into a hotel, but was not allowed to inform the buyer of their intentions. Sellers were allowed to not sell their property, but it was the seller’s role to convince them. The question was whether the buyers would explicitly lie in their negotiations (which were conducted via email) or whether they would simply withhold their intentions, without actively lying. Deception was more likely to lead to the desired outcome, but also signalled a lower threshold for unethical behaviour.
They found that men with a higher fWHR were more likely to explicitly lie than men with lower fWHR. In women, fWHR was not correlated with any differences in deception.
The second task looked at cheating.
The researchers recruited undergraduate students and told them to use an online dice roll to determine the number of times they would be entered to win a $50 gift certificate. Though the dice roll was randomized, participants were told to manually enter their result. This gave them the opportunity to cheat and write a higher number, which would increase their chances of winning the gift certificate.
The results showed that men with higher fWHR were more likely to report a higher number (which reflected cheating) than those with a lower fWHR. This pattern was not evident in women.
The researchers also measured the psychological sense of power in each individual, asking them questions such as: “If I want to, I get to make the decisions”.
The results showed that men with a higher fWHR scored higher on this scale, indicating that they had a higher psychological experience of power. They also found that this higher sense of power was correlated with less ethical behaviour.
However, they found no relationship between power, ethical behaviour, and fWHR in women.
Sense of Power Scale
How much do you agree with each item below?
1. I think I have a great deal of power.
2. I can get him/her/them to do what I want.
3. If I want to, I get to make the decisions.
How much do you disagree with each item below?
1. My wishes do not carry much weight.
2. My ideas and opinions are often ignored.
3. Even when I try, I am not able to get my way.
Excepted from: Anderson, Cameron, Oliver P. John, and Dacher Keltner. “The personal sense of power.” Journal of personality 80.2 (2012): 313-344.
The cost of aggressiveness in women
This research also confirms previous evidence that women’s fWHR has no bearing on aggressive or unethical behaviour. The reason why men display this trait, while women don’t, remains unclear. Though testosterone likely plays a role, complex social dynamics are also important.
Aggressiveness is perceived very differently in men and women, with major social consequences. An aggressive woman, or more importantly, one who acts in a visibly aggressive way, pays a high price in the workplace.
Research on the professional success of women with more “masculine” traits (such as aggression) suggests that the key to being successful as a woman is being able to adapt your behaviour to the particular situation. While men benefit from being consistently perceived as aggressive, assertive, or confident, this is not true for women.
Instead, women benefit from having a high level of self-monitoring, which allows them to temper their assertiveness in the right setting. Interestingly, women who were able to be more assertive some of the time, while at other times appearing more subservient, did better than women who were not able to adapt. They also did better than men, on average.
The deeper implications of this research are troubling and go beyond the scope of this article, but it remains a clear demonstration of a double-standard we are only beginning to recognize. It’s also revealing that women and men are equally critical of women who are perceived as aggressive in the wrong setting, suggesting that the bias is deeply entrenched and occurs beneath consciousness.
The upsides and downsides of aggression
A subjective sense of power and aggressive behaviour are clearly linked. Studies have shown that people who feel more powerful act in a more egocentric way and may be more aggressive. We’ve just shown that they also tend to act unethically.
For more discussion about the psychological implications of feeling powerful, please see:
Perceived Power by Dr Simon Moss
Is feeling powerful always bad? Not at all.
Powerful people see their world in a more optimistic way. They tend to recognize opportunities and look at the whole picture rather than focusing on the details. They plan more effectively, see more creative solutions to problems, focus more closely on tasks relevant to their goals and are also more likely to accomplish their goals.
These skills are strongly associated with more effective leadership, both in political and economic arenas. But performing effectively as a leader is often more complicated than just displaying overt aggression. Let’s look at this idea more closely.
The face of the Presidency
A study looking at 29 past US Presidents found that those with higher fWHR had a higher drive to achieve. They measured this personality characteristic through psychometric analysis based on historical texts (which is, of course, an imperfect measure). Surprisingly, they found no association between the presidents’ fWHR and measures of forcefulness, inflexibility or low pacifism (ie. aggression).
This suggests that there may not be such a clear link between the shape of their face and pure aggressiveness. However, the fWHR was correlated with achievement drive. Thus, the authors suggest that higher fWHR is a marker for the capacity to achieve higher social status and a tendency to strive for that goal, rather than simply overt aggressiveness.
In this study, all the presidents tended to have either average or above average fWHRs, suggesting they all were more status-oriented and achieved their level of success in part because of that personality trait, which revealed itself in their faces. Those with higher fWRH also scored higher when it came to having a drive to achieve.Newer research on testosterone and its role in social interaction suggests that instead of being simply a marker for aggression, testosterone actually serves as a tool for searching and maintaining social status.
Thus, though these presidents had a higher drive to achieve, they were not outwardly more aggressive. In presidents, appearing too forceful may be counterproductive and could be seen as a marker for low status in their position. However, in hockey players, overt aggression would be rewarded and valued, and seen as a high-status display.
Donald Trump appears to be an aberration in this domain, given his overt aggressiveness. Perhaps his supporters are seeking a different kind of leader, one more akin to a hockey player, where displays of dominance are valued.
Let’s compare Donald Trump and Barack Obama.
The difference is subtle, but if you look closely, you’ll notice that Trump’s face is significantly shorter relative to its width than Obama’s. Thus, his fWHR is higher. He also tends to tilt his head back more often, which appears to widen his fWHR.
Trump is also a businessman, and it turns out that his higher fWHR may give him certain advantages in that sphere as well.
The face of business
A recent study examined the faces of 55 male CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. The CEOs with faces that had a higher WHR had better-performing companies (as measured by a higher return on assets) than those with lower fWHRs.
Here too, there was a difference based on context. Dynamics in terms of leadership structure moderated this effect significantly.
In organizations with more cognitively simple leadership– that is, where being deferential to authority was valued by the leader and rules were more clearly black and white, the effect was more pronounced. These leaders benefitted more from having a high fWHR, and those with higher fWHR were more likely to be financially successful. Perhaps this is the case with Trump, who appears to favour this style of leadership.
In leaders who saw problem-solving and leadership in more complex terms, who valued flexible decision-making and multiple points of view, this advantage was less pronounced. Thus, having a higher fWHR was less correlated with success. This is likely because these teams were less deferential to authority, and therefore the individual characteristics of the leader had relatively less impact on the outcome. Perhaps these leaders were also successful because of reasons more complex than mere aggression or status-seeking, and therefore another variable would have to be measured to distinguish the successful CEOs.
Attractiveness to Women
Men with a higher fWHR have been shown to be more powerful, more status-oriented and more likely to be deceitful. What about the extent to which women find them attractive?A recent meta-analysis showed that dominant, more “masculine” men are more sexually attractive to women who are ovulating (when they are most fertile and more likely to get pregnant). When women are not ovulating, they tend to be more attracted to less dominant, more sensitive and kind men.
“Ancestral women would have benefitted reproductively from selecting partners with characteristics indicating that they’d be good co-parents, such as being kind, as well as characteristics indicating that they possessed high genetic quality such as having masculine faces and bodies. Women could have had the best of both worlds — securing paternal investment from a long-term mate and high-genetic quality from affair partners — but only if those affairs were timed at a point of high fertility within the cycle, and probably only if their affairs remained undiscovered.” – Martie Haselton, author of “Do women’s mate preferences change across the ovulatory cycle? A meta-analytic review.” (2014)
This would suggest that women would be more attracted to dominant men in the context of short-term relationships, rather than long-term relationships.
This hypothesis was tested using a speed-dating paradigm in this recent study.
The speed-dating event consisted of 3-minute interactions with alternating heterosexual partners. Between each date, participants were asked whether they would like to go on another date with the person they had just met and how interested they were in a short-term or long-term relationship with them. Participants were not financially rewarded for their participation, beyond the opportunity of finding a partner at the speed-dating event, which suggests that this was a naturalistic setting for actual mating preferences.
The male participants’ faces were photographed to measure their fWHR. These photos were also independently rated for dominance, aggressiveness and attractiveness. Interestingly, raters generally agreed on the level of each characteristic in the photographs without consulting each other, suggesting that these traits appear to be similarly perceived by most viewers.
The men with higher fWHR were consistently more likely to be rated as dominant and more likely to be chosen for a short-term relationship. However, these men were not more likely to be chosen for long-term relationships than men with lower fWHR. They were also not more likely to be rated as attractive.
This suggests that higher fWHR is linked with greater interest in short-term, but not long-term, relationships. But it doesn’t make men more attractive to women, in and of itself.
Taken together, this research suggests that men with a face that signals dominance have certain advantages. They tend to be more powerful, more financially successful, and are preferred as mates for short-term relationships. But they also have disadvantages, including being more likely to be dishonest and aggressive.
The fact that these tendencies are also perceived by others also means that if you have a more dominant face, you are assumed to be more aggressive or dishonest, whether or not this is true. You carry a set of assumptions with you, some of which can hurt you. A study of convicted murderers in Florida showed that those with a higher fWHR were more likely to receive the death sentence than those with lower fWHR. The judge was swayed by the defendant’s face rather than the facts.
To what extent is self-rated dominance is simply a natural outcome of being consistently perceived as dominant by others? These traits cannot exist in a vacuum. Knowing you are seen as more powerful makes you feel and act in a more powerful manner. Perhaps being seen as more deceptive causes you to act this way as well.
An important point is that these are statistically significant but relatively small effects. Many men with “dominant” and “aggressive” faces are no more dominant or aggressive than average. They are only slightly more likely to be, compared to the average man.
We make immediate judgements about others within a fraction of a second of looking at their faces. How can these assumptions colour our perceptions of them?
If you are a woman, how does this knowledge sit with you? Think about your response to men with more “aggressive” faces. What about your response to aggressive women, or your own experience of being perceived as aggressive? Women have equal bias towards assertive women as men do, and neither men nor women are generally aware of it.
If you are a man, think about your own face, and what it might signal to the world. If it displays dominance, how might a lifetime of being assumed to be dominant, aggressive or untrustworthy coloured your own experience? And what about the opposite? A lower fWHR means you are seen as more trustworthy and less aggressive, but what does that mean in the world of business or relationships?