New Scientist is looking for participants in a study on personalities and facial characteristics. All you have to do is answer a few questions and mail a photo of yourself to the magazine. Photos will be merged to form composites that will appear on the cover of the magazine at some point in the future. Learn more here.
As Charles Darwin suggested and Paul Ekman helped verify, facial expressions for some of the more basic human emotions are universal and universally recognized. This indicates a biological rather than a cultural basis for the faces we make to express happiness, fear, sadness, disgust, and surprise. Some recent research, reported in this New Scientist article, examined the possible physiological benefits that might underlie the expressions of fear and disgust. It turns out that the wide-open eyes of fear allow for faster tracking and quicker detection of objects, and the open mouth lets in more air–all of which sound like useful things in scary situations (future research will check to see how much use the brain appears to be making of this added sensory capacity). Disgust, on the other hand, scrunches up the face and allows in less air. This sounds like the start of some interesting work.
You may remember a post from last month about how people estimate a man’s character and guess at his future behavior based on his facial features. Some new research indicates that people’s votes might be influenced by their estimates of a candidate’s character solely as read from his face. A team of psychologists manipulated images of the faces of candidates in eight recent elections in the US, New Zealand, and Great Britain; the modified faces had key features in common with the candidates but were not recognizable as the candidates. Then volunteer subjects were shown the faces in pairs and asked to choose which of the men they would vote for. In all eight cases, the subjects chose the face resembling that of the candidate who won the real election. The researchers also investigated the personality characteristics that the subjects were inferring from the faces. (Note that people didn’t seem to be judging based on conventional attractiveness, but on how they evaluated the man’s personality based on what his face looked like.) This article from the Toronto Star has more info. It’s not clear how much of an effect a candidate’s face has on real elections, but the article points out that even if it’s not a major factor for everyone, it might well be a factor for voters who base their decisions on a gut feeling. Even though faces are highly important to us and we’re creatures who read them well, it’s a little scary to think of people being swayed more by a person’s face than his or her ideas or behavior.
Here’s an article from Natural History Magazine about how scientists and artists reconstruct the faces of our long-gone prehuman ancestors, based on whatever fossil evidence they can find and what we know about primate anatomy. The illustrations are fascinating, and there’s also a graphic that starts with an image of a 400,000-year-old skull and shows you step by step how the face was reconstructed.
It’s easy to infer personality traits from a person’s face, and novelists sometimes will give a character facial features that supposedly indicate what kind of person the character is. Whether there really is a correlation between how you look and how you act is unclear, but some recent research conducted by a social psychologist at the University of Michigan offers some interesting new data. Undergrads, male and female, were shown images of a variety of male faces doctored to look more or less masculine. The subjects had to answer questions about the characteristics of the men and choose which of them they would prefer for certain things (as a friend, as a date, etc.). They tended to rate the owners of the more masculine faces as being more likely to go after someone else’s girlfriend, two-time their own lovers, tangle with the boss, or get into fights, whereas the owners of the less masculine faces were judged more likely to make good parents or husbands and be responsible about going to work. The interesting thing is that there may be some link between how masculine a guy’s face looks and how he behaves, because facial features are influenced by testosterone levels early in life, and testosterone levels are in turn linked to rates of divorce, infidelity, and violent behavior. (I’m assuming that is testosterone levels during adulthood, although the article is not clear, and I’m not sure what relationship there is between developmental and adult levels of testosterone.) Men and women subjects tended to react to the high-T or low-T faces in ways that would seem to enhance their own ability to successfully reproduce, so whether or not there is any meaningful link between looks and behavior, people certainly seem to act as though there is.
1/31/07 I meant to add a link: here’s the article from Science Daily.
Social creatures that we are, we pay a lot of attention to faces. Recent research at Vanderbilt shows that our visual short-term memory can store more faces than it can other objects (assuming the faces are in their familiar upright orientation), evidently as a result of our expertise in faces. This suggests that there’s something about the way faces are encoded in memory that makes it easier to store more of them. Follow-up research will look at the brain mechanisms involved. You can read this press release from Vanderbilt for more information.
Actually it’s the subtle, uncontrollable movements of your facial muscles that you can’t hide. Mark Frank, a psychologist at the University at Buffalo, has identified in very precise terms the facial movements corresponding to specific emotions that are often linked to deceit, and developed techniques of computer analysis that can detect these tiny involuntary signals. Frank’s former mentor, Paul Ekman, did a phenomenal amount of work analyzing facial expressions, devising a numbering system that could describe every possible movement a face can make. Frank built on Ekman’s work to come up with this automated system of analysis, which has been useful in helping identify what this press release describes as “conventional criminal” behavior (an interesting pair of words, that), and might prove useful in counterterrorism efforts. You can read the press release from the university and also a New Yorker article that Malcolm Gladwell wrote in 2002 that talks about Ekman’s and Frank’s work and also has some interesting stuff about people who are inordinately good at reading other people’s facial expressions.
(Sorry if that header left an Eagles song running through your head. I will have to listen to something else now to drive it out of mine.)
This press release from Carnegie-Mellon describes some very cool work on how facial expressions relate to how stressed we are. When people were put through a stressful experience, those who reacted with an angry or indignant facial expression had lower readings for various stress indicators (cortisol, heart rate, blood pressure) than those who looked frightened. I knew that Darwin had written a book about facial expressions and emotions, but I didn’t know until I read this that he had speculated about a link between expressions and biological responses to events. This study follows up on his ideas. One of the more intriguing points is that our reactions to negative emotions can differ, and there isn’t a single type of reaction common to both anger and fear. And in some circumstances, anger can be considered a more useful response. As someone who is far more prone to fear than anger, I find all this very interesting.