Faces, both metaphorically and in reality, hold real power–which has made them a fruitful area of research over the years.
Much of that research into faces has focused on attractiveness–because, as Lisa DeBruine and Ben Jones, experimental psychologists at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, put it, “people preferentially mate with, date, associate with, employ, and even vote for physically attractive individuals.”
Researchers such as DeBruine and Jones (who conduct many of their experiments online at FaceResearch.org) have found that the preference for facial attractiveness is hard-wired: people from different cultures and even young infants are all attracted to the same faces.
Symmetry is one trait we find attractive (but only if the face is right-side up: your symmetric face will, alas, do nothing to help you attract a mate if you constantly stand on your head. Sorry!).
Speaking of mates, we (all humans, not just those of my particular gender) generally find feminine faces (with large eyes and full lips) more attractive than masculine faces (with pronounced brow ridges and jaws). In fact, we–again, men and women both–even prefer feminized male faces over ruggedly masculine faces. That may not be odd for men, but it’s a bit odd for women, since in most species females prefer the males with the most exaggerated masculine characteristics as their mates.
In humans, it appears the positive traits–trustworthiness, warmth and good parenting–we ascribe to people with more feminine faces outweigh other considerations.
Of course, faces are more than just collections of features: we also manipulate them into expressions, and those expressions also affect attractiveness. We like smiles, and we like direct gazes–probably because someone looking at us and smiling is signaling they find us of interest.
Gaze direction is important in other expressions, as well. We’re more likely to recognize an angry expression if the angry person is looking straight at us; more likely to classify a fearful expression as fearful if the gaze is averted. There are good evolutionary reasons for this, as Jones and DeBruine point out: “Being quick to identify when someone is angry with us and quick to identify when something scary is nearby will help us avoid being caught unawares and attacked.”
If we are about to be attacked by another person, we would prefer it to not be by someone with great upper body strength–which translates to great fighting ability–whereas if we’re about to be attacked by something scary, we’d probably prefer to have exactly such a person on our side. That may be why we are also apparently able to judge a man’s strength just by looking at his face.
That’s the finding of new research from the University of California of Santa Barbara, where Aaron Bell, Leda Cosmides and John Tooby asked test subjects to assess the physical strength or fighting ability of individuals based on photographs of their faces, their bodies, are both, ranking them on a scale of one to seven.
The researchers found their subjects, men and women alike, were almost perfectly accurate at determining which of the men in the photographs were strongest (with strength being precisely measured using weight-lifting machines.) Not only that, it didn’t matter whether the men in the photographs were students from California, hunters/farmers from Bolivia or herders/farmers from the Argentinian Andes.
Neither men nor women were nearly as good at assessing the upper body strength of women from photographs…probably because, over most of human history, violence has been primarily the purview of men.
The researchers suspect the facial features these judgments are based on will turn out to be the aforementioned masculine, testosterone-fuelled traits of heavier brow ridge and thicker jaws.
So the next time you want to pick a fight with someone, first spend some time comparing your face and his in the mirror.
Then just declare the person with the heaviest brow-ridge and thickest jaw the winner and go home.
Much less hassle that way–and besides, you wouldn’t want to mess up your face.