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512px-A bizarre physiognomical caricature with a figure pointing t Wellcome V0017234.jpg

Physiognomy is the ancient art and now science of deducing someones personality and character from their appearance, especially from the features of the face, possibly including expression and movement patterns across a brief amount of time.[1]

Physiognomy has gotten out of fashion in mainstream scientific research due to its pseudoscientific history. Physiognomy is commonly compared to forms of quackery such as phrenology (the belief that one could determine a person's personality and propensity to engage in criminal activity by evaluating the bumps on their head). With the machine learning hype, the field has regained some recognition, e.g., machine learning was used to detect people's individual's behavioral tendencies via facial analysis; however, it remains unclear whether the software can produce above-chance results based on facial or contextual cues.[2]

There have also been many scientific studies linking physical appearance with certain personality/character traits above chance, though most researchers shy away from using the term 'physiognomy' explicitly. More tangible results are described below, but none of them have effect sizes large enough that one could assume them to be consistently accurate in actual lived experience. However, proponents of modern physiognomy argue that making decisions based on even a small correlation is superior to doing so based on no information. The chances of making a correct prediction increase as certain traits tend to stack on top of each other.

Regardless of the validity of physiognomic judgments in general, people frequently make very severe and swift judgments based on stereotypes and perceived physiognomic characteristics. As there appear to be genuine associations between appearance and actual behavior (however weak these associations are), the natural human tendency to 'judge a book by its cover' likely has adaptive value. This tendency helped ancestral man avoid potentially dangerous situations (or choose particularly suitable sexual partners or allies) in his evolutionary past. These cognitive heuristics based on superficial appearance would likely have lead to higher reproductive success for those that acted on them for long enough that this judgmental tendency was bred into the human gene-pool over time.

Self-fulfilling prophesy[edit | edit source]

It is argued that since people are generally treated based on how they look, people learn to behave as they look through social reinforcement, thus creating a feedback loop. This is especially true for people with exotic looks. For example, Anton LaVey, founder of the Satanic Church, always had an extremely evil, unconventionally attractive looking face. Anton (real name Howard) was always treated as being a literal handsome devil. Anton enjoyed this treatment and decided to mold his personality to his looks.[3]

Still, others may not be so accepting of how people treat them based on facial features. A good example is baby-faced men. While they are commonly perceived as more trustworthy and warm, they are also perceived as less competent and dominant. However, there is evidence that baby-faced men are more likely to excel in school and commit crimes as adolescents, in stark contrast to how people generally expect them to behave.[4] This suggests that baby-faced men may be attempting to over-compensate for the infantilizing treatment they often receive from others by attempting to prove their dominance or competence.

Another example would be a pretty boy that may not enjoy being treated as such; thus he may attempt to become more muscular in an attempt to be treated as, or seen to be a gigachad.

Modern physiognomy research[edit | edit source]

In recent years, many studies have concluded that facial features are correlated with perceived and actual personality and character traits. The following is a quick summary of some of these findings:

Criminal/violent physiognomy[edit | edit source]

  • A meta-analysis of 19 studies found a weak but statistically significant correlation between fWHR (a measure of the broadness of the face) and aggression, ranging from r = .09 for field and archival studies to r = .21 for studies conducted in research labs.[5] Another study in 2016 found weak but significant correlations between various psychopathic traits and fWHR (r = .12 for the whole sample and r = .27 for a sample of prison inmates). This greater aggression is likely mediated by an association between fWHR and higher levels of pubertal testosterone exposure.[6]
  • Studies conducted in 2013 found that people were able to accurately predict the outcomes of fights based on facial features, above chance. The fighters with faces rated as more aggressive were more likely to win their bouts, but they were also confounded by weight; thus, it only held for heavyweight fighters. The facial features associated with aggressiveness were an overall broader face, broader chin, darker eyebrows and horizontally narrowed eyes.[7]
  • Holtzman (2011) created a series of prototypical faces corresponding to each of the traits of the dark triad, using the photos of 81 study participants, who completed self-report inventories designed to measure the levels of the dark triad traits. The participants were also evaluated in regard to their level of dark triad traits by their peers. It was found that observers could (above chance) correctly distinguish between high and low morphs of the various "dark traits," thus lending some evidence to the idea that these traits are correlated with a certain facial structure. This correlation was explained by several hypotheses, the facial traits and the dark triad being co-evolved, the facial traits influencing people's self-perception and thus behavior, or that individuals are possibly conditioned to behave in a way 'congruent' with their facial structure by peers, through constant social reinforcement.[8]
  • A Chinese study examined the association between fWHR and domestic violence in 144 individuals of both sexes (Wen & Zheng, 2020) found a medium effect size (d = .67) for greater fWHR (as measured to the midbrow) and the men's likelihood of being involved in a domestic violence incident in the past. No such association was found for the female subjects, though greater fWHR was associated with certain aspects of interpersonal dominance. The effect size was much more substantial for fWHR as measured to the midbrow compared to measuring it to the eyelid. However, both were statistically significant and fairly large compared to the usual effects one finds in the social sciences. This discrepancy in effect sizes for the two alternative forms of measuring of fWHR may suggest the midbrow measurement is more accurate in terms of discerning the effects this particular facial metric has on behavior. This discrepancy in the predictive validity for various measures of fWHR is something to keep in mind when interpreting the results of such research. [9]
  • A Chinese study claimed to be able to tell whether someone is a criminal based on machine learning, but the technique turned out to detect smiling instead.[10]

Homosexual physiognomy[edit | edit source]

  • Skorska et al. (2015) used a computer modeling program that examined the facial metrics of N = 390 male and female subjects of varying sexual orientations. It was found that lesbians had 'marginally more masculine facial shapes,' upturned noses, puckered mouths, and smaller foreheads than heterosexual women. Homosexual men tended to have more sloped foreheads, convex cheeks, and smaller noses (with nose size being typically considered a masculine feature, perhaps due to larger noses generally indicating greater prenatal androgen exposure, when controlling for ethnicity) [11] compared to heterosexual men. Therefore, the researchers concluded that facial structure was associated with sexuality in both men and women. This is likely due to prenatal hormonal exposure playing an important role in determining later sexual preferences, while also partially determining facial bone development.[12]
  • Wang & Kosinski (2017) used a deep neural network that, analyzing 35,326 'selfie' images, correctly determined homosexuality in 81% of cases for men, and in 74% of cases for women.[13] The decisions made by the neural network were compared to human judges, who could distinguish a man's homosexuality in 61% of cases and women in 54% of cases (slightly above chance). However, this study has been heavily criticized for being confounded by differences in facial expression, grooming, clothing, camera angle, and other contextual factors unrelated to facial structure.

Intelligence physiognomy[edit | edit source]

  • A twin study in 2017 found a weak but significant relationship between wider IPD (Interpupillary distance) and actual measured IQ.[14] An earlier study found that people were able to gauge measured IQ accurately from a photograph, but this only held in the case of men's IQ, not women's.[15]

Mental health physiognomy[edit | edit source]

  • Certain behavioral conditions may result in particular facial expressions. For example, very intense people might bite their lips, crunch their teeth, chew their nails and engage in other nervous tics. Autists are often described to have an empty, monotonous facial expression. Some mental conditions result in a tilted mouth. Socially excluded individuals may develop tics as nobody is there to correct their behavior, or such behavior may be induced by the greater stress such people often face. People are, in fact, able to infer other's mental conditions above chance level based on photos.[16] Autists are often recognized as less approachable and attractive within seconds.[17]

Infidelity physiognomy[edit | edit source]

  • Foo et al. (2019) found that women relied on men's attractiveness, facial masculinity, and overall perceived trustworthiness to attempt to determine their likelihood of committing infidelity, however of these traits only facial masculinity predicted actual infidelity related behaviors above chance. This effect however, was weak, with only 14.1–18.0% of raters being able to accurately gauge men's infidelity related behaviors above chance.[18] There was no such effect found for women, despite men being able to judge infidelity related behaviors above chance in other men. Earlier research, found that men could only make above accuracy judgements of infidelity when presented with two women, one of whom had committed infidelity several times in the past compared to who had not.[19]

Leadership physiognomy[edit | edit source]

  • A study in 2017 found that fWHR influences social status, with Popes and CEOs typically having higher than average fWHRs. This association between fWHR and social dominance is due to either broad-faced leaders being more effective and socially dominant, or due to their being perceived to be so.[20]

Life history theory and physiognomy[edit | edit source]

There is some evidence that several physical traits are related to a person's life history strategy (whether someone is adapted to a life-fast die young ecology, or is geared towards higher long term resource acquisition and investment in offspring). Thus these physical life-history traits may also be somewhat reflective of their personality.

For instance, tattooing is associated with impulsiveness and promiscuity. Heywood et al. (2012) found that tattooing was associated with drug use, promiscuity, and lower SES, despite changes in the societal acceptance of tattooing. Other studies have replicated this finding,[21][22] and also found that various forms of body modification such as piercings are also associated with greater levels of promiscuity, particularly in women.[23] In terms of (mostly) unalterable traits, there is some (very tentative) evidence that women with larger breasts are generally more promiscuous, impulsive, and extroverted.[24]

These traits are likely reflective of a fast life history strategy, focused on monopolizing as many mating opportunities as possible (for men), and maximally sexually advertising oneself to desirable mates (for women).

Other bodily traits are possibly linked to a slower life history strategy. For instance, the study previously mentioned suggests that women with smaller breasts may generally be more introverted, chaste, and generally exhibit more self-control than larger breasted women. Wiggins et al. (1969) found that men who preferred smaller breasts were also generally more restrained, introverted, and less sexually successful.[25] It has been argued that this could be because smaller breasted women may exhibit a slower life history strategy (being less focused on producing attractive ornaments). Men pursuing a similar life history strategy could be drawn to this through a process of assortative mating (preference for similar traits to oneself in a sexual partner).

Villainous physiognomy[edit | edit source]

A team of Psychologists from the University of Warwick conducted a study which showed downward pointing triangles are perceived as threatening as well as negative faces in a crowd.[26][27] Dr. Blagrove says, "If we look at cartoon characters, the classic baddie will often be drawn with the evil eyebrows that come to a downward point in the middle. This could go some way to explain why we associate the downward pointing triangle with negative faces. These shapes correspond with our facial features, and we are unconsciously making that link." This explains why the evil eyebrows and pointy chin activate our innate threat instincts. A cross-sectional study done in 2017 on the Dermatologic Features of Classic Movie Villains shows that the top 10 villains display a significantly higher incidence of dermatologic findings than the top 10 heroes (60% vs. 0%), which include alopecia, periorbital, hyperpigmentation, deep rhytides on the face, scars on the face, Verruca Vulgaris on the face, and rhinophyma.[28] Showing that people readily associate signs of unhealthy and or damaged skin with an evil, villainous nature.

In men, a large cut at just the right angle over the face seems to improve attractiveness. A study done in 2008 by a team of researchers at the University of Liverpool proves that women indeed find battle-scarred men more attractive for short term relationships. This may be due to women perceiving such men as brave, dominant 'bad boys' moreso than men without facial scarring. Deliberate scarification as a form of signaling bravery and stoicism is common in many non-industrialized cultures around the world. It was also popular in some Western societies in the past, for instance, it was common among aristocrats in 19th century Germany, where these scars became associated with the aristocratic military caste due to them often being members of university fencing clubs. In this milieu, using face masks was viewed as a sign of timidity and weakness.[29]

Facial trust physiognomy[edit | edit source]

Someone's facial appearance plays a significant role in how trustworthy they are perceived to be. For instance, attractive people are seen as warmer and more trustworthy than unattractive people due to the halo effect. However, attractiveness is not the only facial characteristic people use to make a snap judgment of trustworthiness.

For example, it has been found that wider-faced men are seen as less trustworthy, which means people are less willing to cooperate with them.[30] This type of bias can sometimes result in dire outcomes for men judged as less trustworthy based on their facial appearance. For instance, Wilson & O'Rule (2015) found that men with less trustworthy appearing faces were more likely to receive hard prison sentences and even the death penalty.[31]

DeBruine (2002) found that people also tend to trust those who bear a greater facial resemblance to themselves, possibly due to kin selection based evolutionary mechanisms and perceived relatedness.[32]

See Also[edit | edit source]

External link[edit | edit source]

Review of some the research on physiognomy:

References[edit | edit source]

  4. Zebrowitz, Andreoletti, Collins, Lee, & Blumenthal, 1998
  24. Fishbein, M. Progress in Social Psychology: Volume 1



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