Applications of the Physiognomic Approach
The practice of attributing ability, character, and other traits to
people based on the physical appearance of their faces goes back millenia.
The applications of physiognomy range from
ancient methods for understanding people and predicting their futures
to relatively modern employment practices. Physiognomy has
historically played important, if circumscribed, roles in social
transactions, not merely grist for chats over coffee. Besides the
formal systems discussed below, people have a seemingly irresistible
urge to make informal judgments about people based on their facial
features. It is important to note that none of these applications has
any scientific evidence to support it and none uses any of the
scientific evidence and theory discussed on the Science page as a basis for its practice.
A pseudo-science related to physiognomy is Phrenology.
The phrenologist claims that specific areas of the cranium reflect
certain personality and character traits.
By examining these areas of the head for features such as size and shape,
an expert can infer hidden attributes of individuals.
This approach developed in the early 19th century,
based on the discovery that areas of the cerebral cortex under the skull
were specialized and related to specific kinds of activities.
Thus, the skull area over each area takes on certain forms matching the abilities
of the brain underneath it.
Unfortunately for this theory, the early ideas of specialization of the brain are
seriously flawed, and the assumption that specialized areas have anything to do with
shapes of the cranium is false.
Nevertheless, this idea of phrenology became very popular,
and many experts on phrenology published volumes describing the applications
of this technique. Numerous followers promoted the fad and supplied their
services to an eager public, usually for a fee.
None of their claimed expertise have any basis in fact,
and the subject seems little more than a humorous relict today.
Most people looking back can shrug off this phenomenon as an obsolete fad,
but it is a good example of how a bogus program wrapped in an appropriate jargon
and presented elegantly by authoritative promoter not only can defraud
the unwary but also can mask a pervasive ignorance.
Some phrenology examples are presented on the phrenology pages.
Chinese Face Reading
Physiognomy associates any feature of the face and head with personal characteristics, and as a practice, it has a long history in Western and Eastern cultures. European physiognomists prospered from the Middle Ages until the critiques of empirical science blunted its unsubstantiated claims. It still attracts attention as a curiosity and books and popular articles retain an interest. Examples of these physiognomic techniques are presented on the physiognomy practice pages. Some traditional physiognomists, such as the Chinese face
readers, insist on a much stronger relation between facial
appearance and character than do scientists or western physiognomists. They posit a virtual
identity between facial and psychological characters, such
that if one is changed, a change in the other will follow. Thus, the
life of a person is not determined by the original natural facial
appearance, because changing the face will change the destiny. The
Chinese approach to face reading was popularized in the United States
by such proponents as David Marr, a student of a Chinese master. The
method he describes uses rather more complex ideas about facial
features than that of the Western physiognomist. For example, Marr
describes the relationship between a number of facial features, their
sizes and positions, and certain personality traits.
Merton Method for Employers
Holmes W. Merton invented the Merton Method in the late 19th and early
20th century to match a person's character to a suitable job. Merton
specialized in matching personal characteristics to vocations, and he
invented a unique set of traits that he claimed are relevant to job
performance and satisfaction. He divided the face into dozens of
different areas, each area reflecting one or more of his traits, thus
matching a face to a job. Many large corporations used this method in
in the first half of the 20th century to make employment and job
assignment decisions. The notion of vocational apptitude persists in
job counselling professionals, and although few subscribe to the
detailed relationships described in the Merton Method, the use of
more generic facial characteristics (such as the babyface verses the
square-jawed, tough-guy face) is probably still applied, though
perhaps less formally. Another name associated with this method is
Margaret Waring Buck, a student of Merton's and popularizer of his
method in the second half of the 20th century. Some practitioners of this bogus technique may still today apply this approach to unsuspecting victims in certain human resources departments.
|Caricature of the criminal
thug with small, beady , close
set eyes, large jaw and puffy
cheeks, bent nose, unshaven with
Stereotypes of Police
Analysis of physiognomic characteristics has been employed in the
criminal justice system. Some paid legal consultants offer
advice to trial lawyers about their clients, prospective jurors, and
witnesses based on their facial characteristics. They know that
jurors respond to the faces of the defendant and the witnesses, so
they try to optimize the favorableness of the impressions jurors are
likely to form (such consultants are most often used by the defense).
As an example of the effect that the face has on juror deliberations,
consider that research shows that a babyfaced person is less likely
to be convicted of an intentional crime and more likely to be
convicted of a negligent crime. Some consultants also claim to have
insight into the proclivities and characteristics of prospective
jurors based on their faces (and other sources). An old face reading tradition in
law enforcement circles that persists today is that you can tell a
criminal from his or her face. Surveys of policemen indicate that
even today, many believe they can detect the criminal by examining
their face. The practice of using formal training methods for
associating particular facial characteristics with criminal
personality has, it is believed, died out in the United States but
may still be encouraged elsewhere.
Another area in which physiognomy is used, though typically in an
informal way, is the selection of actors to fill roles. For example,
pedantic women, evil or virtuous men, and incompetent or stupid
characters are often portrayed by actors who "look the
part" though makeup can often compensate for discrepancies
between actual and desired appearance. Character actors often spend
their professional lives performing only limited roles that match
their facial appearance.