Facing the future: why looks count

5th November 2004 at 00:00
A weekly column on how the mind works

The old saying "If your face fits, you're in" could be literally true.

Startling research from Germany and the United States has found that facial appearance can determine your future. Researchers studied graduation photographs of military cadets who, 20 years later, had risen to the highest ranks. Those who had made it to the top weren't the obvious candidates; they weren't the ones who had achieved the highest grades in their final year or who came from the most privileged backgrounds, but those who had the "strongest" facial features.

The researchers ranked the photographs according to "facial dominance", signified by strong angular jaws, prominent foreheads, strong eyebrow arches, thin lips, lowered eyebrows with partially closed eyes, and withdrawn ears. "Submissive" faces, which predicted poor career progression, were rounded, with big eyes, a small nose bridge and a broad smile.

Adults who keep these "baby face" looks provoke powerful reactions.

Psychological research suggests that more than 90 per cent of us believe that facial characteristics are a guide to personal temperament. So the way people behave towards you may be determined partly by the way you look.

This, in turn, could shape your personality.

Because babies elicit caring responses from adults, people who retain their youthful looks are perceived as unthreatening. Babies have proportionally larger foreheads, larger eyes, higher eyebrows and longer eyelashes than adults, which explains why some women use cosmetics to make their eyes look larger, and brows thinner and arched. As well as the obvious desirable link with youth, this also helps trigger the adult tendency to show affection and warmth to babies, or people who look like babies.

Sceptics might argue that facial expression rather than the face itself is more important in how we perceive each other. But expression can be biologically determined by physical features, such as facial muscles. For example, some people don't have a risorius muscle, which pulls back the angle of the mouth. This means they are incapable of a sardonic smile or grin.

All this recent research activity suggests that the long neglected subject of physiognomics - the study of the link between facial features and personality - could be making a comeback. It may seem frivolous, but the subject is worth taking seriously. For example, criminologists have found that prisons contain a significantly higher proportion of people with facial abnormalities than is present in the general population. It is possible that if these people had experienced positive rather than negative reactions to their facial features, some might not have entered the downward spiral of crime.

Teachers are in the privileged position of being able to influence a person's life path. Perhaps, therefore, they should think more about the effect their pupils' appearance or manner might have on their peers, and how they should compensate for this. The problem is that feedback has to be given sensitively. That's why it sometimes takes years of psychotherapy, and a relationship of trust, before a therapist dares tell a client the truths that everyone else has been studiously avoiding.

Professor Raj Persaud is a consultant psychiatrist at the Maudsley hospital and senior lecturer at the Institute of Psychiatry in London. He is this year's visiting Gresham professor for public understanding of psychiatry and will give a free public lecture at Barnard's Inn Hall, London EC1 on November 29. See www.gresham.ac.uk for more details. Email: rajpersaud@tes.co.uk

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