Face Reading, Personality, and Attractiveness

What’s in a face?  Does our exterior tell us anything about our interior?  Can we make predictions about personality by studying face shapes or facial features?  Are certain personality characteristics correlated with measures of physical beauty and attractiveness?

Face Reading, Personality, & Attractiveness

According to Wikipedia, face reading, or “physiognomy,” refers to the assessment of a person’s character or personality from their outer appearance, especially the face.”  “Personology,” according to the same source, “relies on physiognomy and facial features to analyze and predict character traits and behavior.”  Though often dismissed as pseudoscientific, recent peer-reviewed research suggests there is at least a “kernel of truth” to such practices.  In this post, I wished to take a look at the relationships between facial features, the Big Five (i.e., five factor model), and the MBTI / Myers Briggs personality taxonomy.

The journal article we will be consulting is “Personality Judgments from Natural and Composite Facial Images:  More Evidence for a “Kernel of Truth” in Social Perception by Penton-Voak et al (Social Cognition, 2006).  There were two parts to the study.  The first involved ratings of static photos of individuals’ personality traits, while the second involved composite photos.  For the latter, the authors used computer graphics to “average” the faces of those subjects who scored themselves highest on a given personality dimension.

For this study, the Big Five taxonomy was employed, which has been shown to correlate closely with the Myers-Briggs.  The Big Five / MBTI dimensions include: extroversion (extraversion / introversion),  openness (intuition / sensing), agreeableness (feeling / thinking), conscientiousness (judging / perceiving), and emotional stability (no MBTI correlate).  Take a look at the male composites for each dimension from the study.

In the first portion of the study (ie, rating individual photos), the authors found that raters were able to accurately select (i.e., face read), males who were extraverted, emotionally stable and high in openness (i.e, intuitive).  For females, raters were able to accurately select those who were extroverted.  The most robust evidence for the efficacy of physiognomy / personology for both sexes was the ability to perceive extraversion.  This is consistent with other studies, which showed similar results, including greater ease with assessing male faces.

For the composite photos, raters deemed males high in agreeableness (p<.001), conscientiousness (p<.02), extraversion (p<.001), and emotional stability (p<.001) to be significantly more physically attractive.  For females, those who were agreeable (p<.001), extraverted (p<.001), and open (p<.02), were considered significantly more attractive.  The raters also accurately identified the personality dimension for each of these composites, with the exception of female openness.

We can sum up these findings as follows:

Identifiable female personality dimensions: extraversion (both indiv & composite), agreeableness (composite only)

Males: extraversion (both), emotional stability (both), openness (individuals only), conscientiousness (composite only), agreeableness (composite only)

Personality dimensions associated with ratings of attractiveness:  extraversion, agreeableness (i.e., feeling), conscientiousness (ie, judging, in males), emotional stability (in males), openness (intuition in females).

Note:  For those who are concerned about being deemed unattractive, it is worth noting that the composites involved those who were in the top 10% for each dimension.  In other words, they used individuals at the extremes for each personality dimension.  There are also a number of other factors involved in perceived attractiveness, including facial symmetry, dress / make-up, body shape / type, personality, etc.  This study looked at only static physiognomy / personology, excluding these other factors.

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