THE history of science could have been so different. When Charles Darwin applied to be the “energetic young man” that Robert Fitzroy, the Beagle’s captain, sought as his gentleman companion, he was almost let down by a woeful shortcoming that was as plain as the nose on his face. Fitzroy believed in physiognomy – the idea that you can tell a person’s character from their appearance. As Darwin’s daughter Henrietta later recalled, Fitzroy had “made up his mind that no man with such a nose could have energy”. Fortunately, the rest of Darwin’s visage compensated for his sluggardly proboscis: “His brow saved him.”
The idea that a person’s character can be glimpsed in their face dates back to the ancient Greeks. It was most famously popularised in the late 18th century by the Swiss poet Johann Lavater, whose ideas became a talking point in intellectual circles. In Darwin’s day, they were more or less taken as given. It was only after the subject became associated with phrenology, which fell into disrepute in the late 19th century, that physiognomy was written off as pseudoscience.
Now the field is undergoing something of a revival. Researchers around the world are re-evaluating what we see in a face, investigating whether it can give us a glimpse of someone’s personality or even help to shape their destiny. What is emerging is a “new physiognomy” which is more subtle but no less fascinating than its old incarnation.
First impressions are highly influential, despite the well-worn admonition not to judge a book by its cover. Within a tenth of a second of seeing an unfamiliar face we have already made a judgement about its owner’s character – caring, trustworthy, aggressive, extrovert, competent and so on. Once that snap judgement has formed, it is surprisingly hard to budge. What’s more, different people come to strikingly similar conclusions about a particular face – as shown in our own experiment.
People also act on these snap judgements. Politicians with competent-looking faces have a greater chance of being elected, and CEOs who look dominant are more likely to run a profitable company. Baby-faced men and those with compassionate-looking faces tend to be over-represented in the caring professions. Soldiers deemed to look dominant tend to rise faster through the ranks, while their baby-faced comrades tend to be weeded out early. When baby-faced men appear in court they are more likely than their mature-faced peers to be exonerated from a crime. However, they are also more likely to be found guilty of negligence.
There is also a well-established “attractiveness halo”. People seen as good-looking not only get the most valentines but are also judged to be more outgoing, socially competent, powerful, sexually responsive, intelligent and healthy. They do better in all manner of ways, from how they are greeted by other people to how they are treated by the criminal justice system.
Is there any substance to such snap judgements? Are dominant-looking people really more dominant? Are baby-faced people naive? Are we electing the most competent leaders, or simply people who look the part? As psychologist Alexander Todorov of Princeton University points out, the fact that different people come to remarkably similar conclusions about a particular face is very different from saying there is a correspondence between a face and something real in an individual’s personality.
There is, however, some tantalising evidence that our faces can betray something about our character. In 1966, psychologists at the University of Michigan asked 84 undergraduates who had never met before to rate each other on five personality traits, based entirely on appearance, as they sat for 15 minutes in silence. For three traits extroversion,conscientiousness and openness – the observers’ rapid judgements matched real personality scores significantly more often than chance.
More recently, researchers have re-examined the link between appearance and personality, notably Anthony Little of the University of Stirling and David Perrett of the University of St Andrews, both in the UK. They pointed out that the Michigan studies were not tightly controlled for confounding factors: the participants could have been swayed by posture, movement, clothing and so on. But when Little and Perrett re-ran the experiment using mugshots rather than live subjects, they also found a link between facial appearance and personality – though only for extroversion and conscientiousness.
While these experiments suggest that our snap judgements of faces really do contain a kernel of truth about the personality of their owner, Little stresses that the link is far from clear-cut. He and Perrett only found a correlation at the extremes of personality, and other studies looking for links with different aspects of personality have failed to find any association at all. The owner of an “honest” face, for example, is no more likely to be trustworthy than anyone else.
What is also not fully understood is why we make facial judgements so readily. Is there an evolutionary advantage to judging books by their covers? Little suggests that because these judgements are so rapid and consistent – and because they can indeed reveal aspects of personality – it is likely that evolution has honed us to pick up on the signals.
Support for this, and the kernel of truth idea, has come from a study of 90 ice-hockey players published late last year by Justin Carré and Cheryl McCormick of Brock University in Ontario, Canada. They found that a wider face in which the cheekbone-to-cheekbone distance was unusually large relative to the distance between brow and upper lip was linked in a statistically significant way with the number of penalty minutes a player was given for violent acts including slashing, elbowing, checking from behind and fighting. These series of experiments conducted points us to the kind of personality which some cultures will like for its individuals.