The idea that aspects of someone’s personality can be gleaned from their facial appearance is an ancient one, but remains controversial. Physiognomy, the practice of assessing character from facial features, has a long history across many cultures. But does scientific evidence support this notion that personality traits like kindness, intelligence, or trustworthiness can be readily discerned from a person’s face?
Modern research suggests facial appearance alone provides limited information about someone’s true personality. However, faces may provide some clues to personality in combination with other nonverbal cues like body language and voice tone. As social creatures, humans do tend to make rapid judgments about others based on facial cues and appearance. But while we may rely on facial signals for quick first impressions, a complex concept like personality cannot be easily reduced to individual facial features.
The history and principles of physiognomy
The notion that inner character can be read from outward appearance dates back to ancient China, India and Greece. Aristotle and early Western philosophers proposed that emotions and character traits are revealed through facial signals like wrinkles, dimples, or the shape of the eyebrows.
Physiognomy grew into a pseudoscience in the 1800s, as theorists like the Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso proposed that criminals had inherent “criminal” facial features that reflected their deviant personalities. According to Lombroso, criminals tended to have asymmetrical faces, large jaws, prominent chins or long arms relative to body size.
Later physiognomists linked personality traits like honesty, work ethic and kindness to facial features like eye shape, nose size, or the fullness of lips. Phrenology, the belief that bumps on the skull reflect personality traits, was also popular in the 19th century. While dismissed today, phrenology contributed to early neuroscience showing that different brain regions control distinct functions.
Principles of physiognomy
Physiognomy was based on three core principles:
- The face provides signs of stable underlying character and personality traits.
- Specific facial features are linked with specific personality traits like aggression, introversion, intelligence, etc.
- The shape and structure of the face reflects inner moral character and personal potential.
So for example, a square jaw or prominent brow might signal aggression, while a round smiling face could indicate agreeability. According to physiognomists, facial structure was fixed from birth and did not change over time.
Scientific research on faces and personality
Modern psychologists reject physiognomy as pseudoscience, given the lack of rigorous evidence linking facial features to personality. However, some studies provide limited evidence that faces may provide clues to certain traits, especially in conjunction with other nonverbal signals.
Can faces indicate personality?
Psychology studies testing whether strangers can accurately judge personality from photos or videos of faces show mixed results:
- Strangers’ personality judgments based solely on still photos are only slightly better than chance.
- Judgments improve somewhat for brief video clips with both facial and voice cues.
- Accuracy is better for certain traits like extraversion, self-esteem, maturity and intelligence.
- However, faces alone provide limited information for judging more complex traits like trustworthiness, competence, aggression or propensity for risk-taking.
So while aspects of personality like sociability or confidence may be partially discernible from faces, complex social traits remain difficult to judge. This suggests facial appearance provides limited usefulness for personality assessment.
The predictive power of faces
Some studies find that strangers can predict real-life outcomes like electoral success, teaching effectiveness or occupational attainment at above-chance rates from photos of faces alone. This suggests certain traits relevant for leadership or achievement may be detectable from facial cues.
However, predictions are far from perfect, and the reason why appearance might correlate with achievement is not clear. For example, attractive or competent-looking political candidates may also be well-dressed and be afforded more positive media coverage. So correlations do not imply we can directly see or know personalities from faces alone. Traits judged from faces may become self-fulfilling through society’s reactions.
Are some traits more easily discerned from faces?
Faces may provide clues to certain personality aspects, but not allow confident judgment of moral character. Here is a summary of what scientific evidence suggests is predictable and not predictable from faces:
- Extraversion vs. introversion
- Self-esteem or confidence
- Maturity and social dominance
- Attractiveness and likeability
- Aggression or dangerousness
- Political affiliation
So while we may get an impression of someone’s confidence, friendliness and smarts from facial cues, inner qualities like trustworthiness remain hidden. This explains why harmful physiognomic practices like using faces to pick job candidates or identify criminals lack strong scientific basis.
Why do we judge personality from faces?
If facial appearance provides only weak clues to personality, why are we so prone to making character judgments from faces?
The speed of first impressions
Research shows we form first impressions from faces in under 100 milliseconds. Evolutionary psychologists propose we rapidly judge faces to identify kin, allies or dangerous enemies. When meeting strangers, rapid social decisions were more important for survival than accurate personality assessment.
We unconsciously associate facial features with stereotypes, like linking square jaws to aggression or round faces to warmth. These implicit associations between faces and personalities likely stem from culture, media, and evolved tendencies to categorize.
We don’t just perceive individual facial features, but holistically integrate multiple features into an overall impression. For example, wider-set eyes coupled with upturned brows and a wide mouth may get interpreted as surprise. Our mind tries to weave multiple facial signals into a coherent story.
Psychologists have proposed the phenomenon of “faceism” – the deep-rooted human tendency to judge someone’s essence from their facial appearance alone. However, this reliance on facial signals likely owes more to evolved mental shortcuts and culture than accurate personality identification.
Are impressions from faces accurate?
Do first impressions from faces align with real personalities? Research concludes we achieve limited accuracy, but make systematic errors:
- We correctly judge extraversion and intelligence somewhat above chance.
- Impressions reflect social stereotypes and culture more than real traits.
- Accuracy doesn’t improve even after meeting and interacting with the person.
- We see attractive people as more kind and competent.
- Maturity and dominance are overestimated in male faces.
- We associate babyfaced features with weakness or naivety.
- “Averageness” and symmetry boost perceived likeability and competence.
So while we can detect some cues from faces, our judgments are swayed by biases, stereotypes, and a desire to judge personality from minimal information.
The interplay between faces, bodies and voices
Faces don’t exist in isolation – they are perceived in combination with body language and vocal cues. Researchers propose that rapid personality assessments incorporate signals from faces, voices and posture:
- Voices provide clues to traits like confidence, dominance, and emotional state.
- Body language conveys warmth/aloofness, energy level, and nervousness.
- Face perception focuses more on detecting threat, alertness and general mood.
Integrating multiple cues allows more accurate first impressions than faces alone. For example, an aggressive posture, angry voice and tense facial expression combine to signal irritation, while slumped shoulders contradict an enthusiastic facial expression.
So while faces in isolation provide limited information, the mind automatically combines facial and bodily cues to size up others. This supports the old adage that personality comes through in people’s overall comportment, not a single feature.
The demise of physiognomy
While judging strangers by their faces comes naturally, physiognomy has been discredited as a scientific practice for good reasons:
Lack of predictive power
Studies find only weak links between static facial features and actual personality traits or life outcomes. Physiognomic predictions are little better than astrology.
No fixed facial-trait links
No clear one-to-one associations between traits like honesty and specific facial features like eye shape have been found. Personality depends on many factors, not single features.
Plasticity of faces
Unlike fixed bumps on a phrenological skull, faces are highly changeable through expression, grooming, cosmetics, aging, weight change, etc. So faces reveal moods better than stable dispositions.
Perceived traits like competence become real through others’ expectations. For example, babyfaced men getting judged as weak then become less assertive.
Perceived traits may owe more to grooming, clothing, culture and media than actual personality. For example, glasses may get interpreted as smartness.
First impressions from faces are swayed by racial, gender, and other unconscious biases. Prejudice distorts perceptions of character unrelated to facial features.
So while intuitions tempt us to judge strangers’ faces, science finds no fixed links between faces and moral character. Physiognomy persists as an unfounded but intuitive pseudoscience.
The kernel of truth to first impressions
While judging personality from static facial features alone is problematic, social intuition has value in live interactions. There are grains of truth in our rapid first impressions:
Faces do reflect current emotional states through expressions, gaze, muscular tension, etc. So they provide cues to mood and attitude.
Features like eye contact, blinking rate, and responsiveness to social cues reflect mental states like engagement, fatigue or even intoxication.
Grooming and style contain information about self-discipline, self-esteem, and conscientiousness. Well-kept hair and clothes reflect self-care.
Skin condition, eye-bags, and facial musculature hold clues to energy levels, age, lifestyle, and current health.
So faces may provide valid clues about disposition and status when read in context. Dynamic facial movements and expressiveness matter more than fixed features for personality assessment.
Seeing beyond faces to know character
While facial first impressions are inevitable, long-term character assessment requires looking beyond appearances:
Observe range of emotional expressions
Momentary facial expressions are read more accurately in context of someone’s full range of observed emotional reactions.
Note congruence with full nonverbal signals
Assess whether facial signals match body language and voice for a consistent picture. Mixed signals indicate complexity.
Observe behavior over time
True reliability, honesty and kindness become apparent through long-term actions, not split-second glimpses.
Consider actions, not just expressiveness
Read faces in terms of what people actually do, not just facial animation. Talk is cheap without behavioral follow-through.
Get feedback from others
Build a three-dimensional perspective through others’ impressions and experiences beyond your own perceptions.
So while faces draw reflexive social judgments, real personality assessment takes time, attention and input from the full person in context. There are no true facial shortcuts to the heart of someone’s character.
The notion that inner character can be read from facial features retains intuitive appeal, but lacks rigorous scientific grounding. While we rapidly form impressions from faces, these first takes provide limited accuracy for judging personality. With its checkered history of physiognomy, we should be wary of judging strangers’ faces alone.
Modern psychology finds no fixed links between moral character traits like trustworthiness and criminal proclivities and specific facial features. However, aspects of personality like intelligence, confidence, and emotional state are partially discernible from faces in combination with body language and vocal cues. We must be cautious not to over-interpret limited facial signals as reflective of enduring dispositions or moral fiber. While inevitable, first impressions based on faces benefit from slow correction through experience of the whole person in diverse situations over time. Ultimately, as the old adage goes, true personality and character show through in the full blossoming of a person’s actions and patterns of living, not superficial external features alone.