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Science of Physiognomy

Controversy typically surrounds issues related to physiognomy. One reason might be the history of pseudo-scientific and discredited fads, such as phrenology, that associated physical and psychological characteristics without adducing credible evidence, and the implausibility of much of their claims. The ascription of a personal character to a physical feature of the face can be cast into a "biological determinism" framework, or can invoke associations with socially sensitive areas of race characteristics, etc. These views are antithetical to a dominant American viewpoint of social and environmental determinants of social standing. Yet, despite reservations, one must ask why physical facial characteristics should not be correlated with certain psychological traits. After all, both are the products of the same forces: 1) the interactions that the individual has with the environment, and 2) the person's biological inheritance.

Like many of the subjects of ancient philosophy, physiognomy became a topic for empirical investigation and scientific attention during the Enlightenment. As with other issues regarding the face and expression, little progress was made by early researchers. Because of the ill repute that various practitioners of physiognomy and phrenology cast over this area, most serious investigators have eschewed these topics for the last century. Many of the underlying questions posed by physiognomy have remained unanswered, and this void has attracted some recent attention. The following paragraphs discuss the scientific aspects of physiognomy.

Are Inferences Based On Physiognomy Accurate?

Some scientific evidence supports the connection between facial characteristics and psychological and other traits. No doubt, some facial appearances are diagnostic of certain genetic diseases, such as Down's Syndrome and the DeLange Syndrome (see the Facet of Diseases), and some congenital diseases such as fetal alcohol syndrome. These diseases also have psychologically relevant correlates, thus mediating correlations between facial and psychological characteristics. Likewise, males and females differ in some general facial characteristics (e.g., proportionate size of chin) and also differ in certain psychological traits, providing the basis for other, general correlations between facial features and psychological characteristics. Similar processes could operate in less obvious ways to create correlations in other respects. How specific these relations may be, and their magnitude, is still being explored. Many psychological studies have shown that people who judge faces share a consensus about what traits the face reveals, but often there is no evidence about whether these judgments are accurate (valid) or not. Research evidence shows that people are able to make judgments about others based on their face with some degree of accuracy (validity) for some psychological traits, including extraversion, conscientiousness, agreeableness, dominance, Machiavellianism, sexual availability, and intelligence.

baby-faced facial features mature facial features
Relatively baby-faced woman (Left.) with round face, large eyes, small
nose, short chin, versus a relatively mature face (Right.) that is more
angular, has a longer chin, and larger nose. Other baby-faced
characteristics (not visible here) include eyes relatively lower on the
face and eyebrows higher on the forehead. These models are roughly
equal in attractiveness. Males also can have baby faces.

The social psychologist Leslie Zebrowitz offers a lengthy argument for another, more complex way in which physical facial characteristics can be associated with psychological traits. Her general claim is that a person's facial appearance can affect one's choice of environment, which, in turn, causes certain psychological traits to develop, thus creating a link between facial features and psychological traits. A likely mechanism for how people learn and respond to these links is overgeneralization, i.e., a tendency to apply a judgment based on partial or inadequate cues. She illustrates her argument with two widely studied phenomena, the babyface overgeneralization and the attractiveness halo. In regard to the babyface overgeneralization (see the Facet of Attractiveness for a discussion of the attractiveness halo), her argument begins with the fact that the faces of babies have characteristic features, such as relatively larger eyes, smaller chin and lower mouth, as illustrated in the image on the left. Many behavioral science studies have shown that people react in predictable, far-reaching ways to these babyface features, even when these features appear in adults (an overgeneralization). For example, they judge the babyface feature of relatively wide eyes as indicating more honesty and naivete, consistent with a traditional physiognomic view. baby's physiognomyAnother line of research studies has shown that people actually do tend to have jobs that are consistent with stereotypes about the meaning of their facial features. For example, baby-faced adults tend to be over represented in "women's work" jobs, and baby-faced military officers tend to be weeded out early. Such results are probably due to a combination of the person's free choices and a selection process based on the decisions (biases) of others. This kind of evidence is consistent with the theory that facial appearances, interacting with social factors, cause traits to develop, perhaps following a self-fulfilling prophecy effect, or a self-defeating prophecy effect, and she discusses evidence that supports such causal links. One valid relationship, for example, is between baby-facedness and the Big Five trait of agreeableness. She also discusses the possibility that traits produce facial appearances.

In summary, the answer to the question "are judgments based on physiognomy accurate?" is "yes and no." Certain patterns of facial features can be highly associated with psychological characteristics in special circumstances, such as diseases. Other features have a statistical relationship to psychological traits, but are often wrong in specific cases. Many stereotypes about what facial features reveal are not accurate. Still other physiognomic attributions are merely arbitrary and as fallacious as purely random judgments.

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