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19 November 2013

Should we be judging people by their looks?

It's a terrifying thought, but phrenology could be making a comeback. A new study has revealed that you can judge a person by their appearance.

By Martha Gill


Once upon a time, long, long ago, there were prophets so wise they could tell a man’s character just by looking at the shape of his skull. Traits and flaws were spelt in the ridges and bumps of a head, and those who knew the ancient art of phrenology were able to read them, like braille. 

It sounds ridiculous now, and slipped utterly from the bounds of respected science at the end of the 19th century. And yet, with what we now know about development, the idea does make a sort of sense. Much of the way faces form is to do with quantities of particular hormones at crucial times, and as these wash through the system changing the shape of your cheekbones they are also changing the development of your brain. If inside was tied to outside in a readable way, this could also make evolutionary sense of our overblown reaction to beauty. We might, for example, have learned to like beautiful features because they signal beautiful characters, too.

We can’t prove this, because it would involve setting up a large experimental breeding programme for humans. And I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there seems to be something a little off about the idea. It has, however, as spotted by Dr Irene Elia in the most recent Quarterly Review of Biology, been done with foxes. And the results are pretty interesting.

A Russian geneticist, Dmitry Belyaev, started breeding friendly characteristics into silver foxes back in 1957. But as their personalities changed through the generations, (becoming tamer, more docile, more eager to please) so did their features. Their noses became smaller, their faces flatter, their foreheads rounded, their jaws reduced.

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As Elia writes, these are the same features that make a human good looking, and have been sought after and selected for throughout history. She points to 33 studies which suggest people with attractive looks tend to be friendlier, better socially adjusted, and more intelligent. Is there an ugly truth about beauty, and are we starting to uncover it?

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The truth might be even broader and more precise than that. It strikes me that it might be interesting here to bring in a study from a couple of years ago which wasn’t given much attention at the time.

In 2010, a study was published in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology which linked personality to facial features with striking precision. The scientists took 63 women and took pictures of their faces, also scoring each of them for various personality traits. Composites of all the faces were then made for each characteristic (so that, as can be seen below we have a “neurotic” face, a “conscientious” face and so on).


Here’s the interesting thing though – when presented with these pictures and asked to rate them for each characteristic, volunteers unerringly picked the right face. It seemed they could read personality with disturbing accuracy. 

As you can see though, if you’ve looked at the faces, the case for beauty here is slightly obscured. For example, the “high agreeableness”  face (perhaps the more beautiful of the two) looks quite similar to the “low mental health” face. The study is small, but it throws an interesting angle on the Elias paper. If there is a link between face and personality, it might be more complicated than good looks = good character. “If there is a link…”. What a terrifying thought. Could phrenology be back? Can we judge a book by its cover? The heart says no, but science says yes, maybe, if you know how to do it.