The Ecology of Humans – Physiognomy


“Facial characteristics are an important basis for judgements about gender, emotion, personality, motivational states and behavioural dispositions.” ~ Canadian psychologists Justin Carré & Cheryl McCormick

The ancient Greeks believed that a person’s character could be foretold by the face; that facial structure reflected personality. Mountebanks in the Middle Ages practicing physiognomy put its credence into disrepute.

In the late 1770s, Swiss poet Johann Kaspar Lavater revived physiognomy with a book that found favor in England, France, and Germany, owing to its lavish look and illustrations. In Darwin’s day physiognomy was taken as a given.

Each type of crime is committed by men with particular physiognomic characteristics. ~ Italian criminologist and physician Cesare Lombroso

Physiognomy fell back out of favor in the late 19th century when it was linked with phrenology: that measurements of the skull could reveal a person’s psychology because the brain was the organ of the mind. Both phrenology and physiognomy became disdained as pseudoscience.

Yet people everywhere judge a person’s character from looking at their face. First impressions – on the order of 100 milliseconds or less – are readily made and hard to budge.

The 2 overarching assessments are: 1) whether to approach or avoid and 2) physical strength. An evolutionary adaptation, rapid evaluation based upon facial expression is innate.

The accurate perceptions of emotional expressions and the dominance of conspecifics are critical for survival and successful social interaction. In the absence of clear emotional cues broadcasting the intentions of the person, faces are evaluated in terms of their similarity to expressions of anger and happiness in an attempt to infer the person’s intentions. People need to infer not only these intentions but also the ability of the person to implement these intentions. In the absence of other cues, faces are evaluated in terms of their facial maturity in an attempt to infer this ability. ~ Italian psychologist Nikolaas Oosterhof & Russian psychologist Alexander Todorov

People consistently think that happy faces look trustworthy and untrustworthy ones look angry; and that masculine faces show dominance while feminine faces indicate submissiveness.

Sexually dimorphic facial width-to-height ratio may be an ‘honest signal’ of propensity for aggressive behaviour. ~ Justin Carré & Cheryl McCormick

Research on male hockey players plops the puck of possibility in physiognomy. Facial structure is linked to testosterone level.

Men producing more testosterone are less likely to marry and more likely to divorce. Once married they are more likely to leave home because of troubled marital relations, extramarital sex, hitting or throwing things at their spouses, and experiencing a lower quality of marital interaction. ~ American sociologists Alan Booth & James Dabbs Jr.

The hockey player study found that men with higher testosterone levels had wider faces and were more aggressive.

Then there is physiognomy as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Infants with masculine faces grow up to be children and adults with masculine faces. Parental and societal reactions to these cues may help shape behaviour and personality. In essence, people would be growing into the character expected of their physiognomy. ~ Scottish psychologist David Perrett

Physiognomy as destiny creates a conundrum between correlation and causality. In familiar face overgeneralization, people judge others with similar looks to have selfsame personalities.

Beware of pretty faces that you find. A pretty face can hide an evil mind. ~ American singer/songwriter Johnny Rivers in the song “Secret Agent Man” (1964)

On average, baby-faced men are better educated, more assertive, and apt to win more military medals than their mature-looking counterparts. But they are also more likely to be criminals. Consider Al Capone, American gangster who had a baby face.

While more likely to be academic high-fliers, baby-faced boys are prone to be quarrelsome and hostile. This may be a self-defeating prophecy effect: a man with a baby face strives to confound expectations and ends up overcompensating. This is analogous to the Napoleon complex in short men.

Physiognomy provokes the hoary debate of nature versus nature: is personality innate, or a product of upbringing? A bit of both, with biology providing the baseline, and somewhat more malleable psychology putting some range in natural inclination. Certainly, the mix is too complex to feel confident with a first impression.