Thursday, August 9, 2012

Paper Dissection: A wide face may mean you are a bad boy...

On the Autopsy Table: Bad to the Bone: facial structure predicts unethical behaviour

Authors: M.P Haselhuhn and E.M. Wong

 Journal: Proceedings of the Royal Society B

Volume: 279 (2012)

The Exterior:

Essentially, if you are a male with a wide face, you are more likely to cheat and lie in controlled tests (and this could be extended to real life). This is due to the underlying genetic trait (i.e. face width) giving a sense of power to the indvidual and/or the likelihood this physical trait is perceived as aggressive to others. This study supposedly demonstrates that genetically based traits (such as face width) can be linked to behaviour. I have to admit it was difficult not to think about the days of the 'criminal' shaped head (aka. phrenology) when reading this paper. However, with all the talk of 'criminal' genes in recent times, I thought it would make for an interesting paper.

The Guts:

The researchers measured a number of people's faces both male and female, then allowed the to play a game of negotiation. The next lot of volunteers were able to enter a lottery, and were told how many chances they had to enter. However the lottery was online, and the recruits had an opportunity to cheat and enter more times than allowed.  To generate measurements for comparison, faces were measured and a width-to-height ratio was calculated (known as a WHR). The negotiation test had 192 participants and the lottery had 123.

The title pretty much sums up the results. In both cases, men with wider facers took the opportunity to act unethically. In the negotiation test men with a higher WHR would lie more often, and in the lottery, they would add more entries than told to.

The explanation that the authors supplied for the bad behaviour is actually psychological, and a result of the biological features. Men with wider faces felt more powerful, and thus this power encouraged them to cheat. It is thought that men with wider faces are seen as more aggressive and thus, can take advantage of those who sense this aggression. The authors suggest that if these men are treated like they have more power, they will probably use it to their advantage.

Would you call this man a liar to his face? And then back it up by saying he is a liar, because of his face?

The Skeleton: 
So if you have a wide face you'll lie and cheat? Not quite. Looking at the actual numbers in the study, it can be seen that the differences in WHR and cheating behaviour actually aren't large, although it is statistically significant. The authors do admit further research is needed to confirm their findings, and furthermore to confim an explanation; whether the explanation is more related to the genetic trait or a psychological phenomenon, or just due to the subjects used in this one study (it is possible that out of the entire population on earth, these researchers just ended up with a bunch of volunteers who tend to cheat and lie more often than another group).

Overall,  while this study is interesting, it doesn't quite prove that men with wider faces are unethical. What it does show is that there may be some biological predictors of how people are perceived (i.e. if you are perceived as powerful due to a strong face, your behaviour may reflect this). However, if you look around, I'm sure you'll find people with a large WHR who aren't liars, cheats or are perceived as aggressive as social and environmental influences have outweighed the biological ones. So there's a bit more research to be done before you should go treating people with wide faces as suspicious.

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