People with wide faces are perceived to be more aggressive. But do first impressions count? By Etan Smallman
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If you want to know whether others perceive you as violent, dishonest or greedy, there is only one thing for it: measure your face. Having a square visage – like Brad Pitt or Hillary Clinton – means you are more likely to be judged as aggressive than someone with an oval-shaped one, researchers at the University of New South Wales in Australia have found.
This relationship between high facial width-to-height ratio (FWHR) and perceived aggressiveness is strongest for men between the ages of 27 and 33 and for women at 34 to 61, according to the study, which was published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.
To calculate your FWHR, divide the width of your face by the vertical distance between the highest point of the upper lip and the highest point of the eyelids. The higher the ratio, the broader your face, and the more likely you are to be viewed by others as antagonistic.
The research is just the latest in a long line of studies to find associations between face shape and both perception and behaviour. In 2011, a US paper found that men with high FWHRs are more likely to lie and cheat to make more money. “Perhaps some men truly are bad to the bone,” wrote the researchers.
The British authors of a 2012 study analysed the faces of 29 US presidents, and found that those with wider faces exhibited a higher “achievement drive”, even among this group of extreme high achievers.
Meanwhile, a 2013 study of Finnish soldiers who served in the Second World War found that the square-faced ones had more children – even though separate research has found that, on average, women find men with broad faces less attractive.
Four years later, Canadian scientists found that men and women with shorter, wider faces tend to have a stronger libido, be more comfortable about casual sex and be more likely to consider infidelity. And a 2019 study found a link between dominance and face width of bonobo great apes.
The wide face shape has been linked to both acts of aggression and higher levels of testosterone. It is also thought to have conferred an evolutionary advantage, says Dr David White, lead investigator at the Face Research Lab of the University of New South Wales, and co-author of the latest study, which asked volunteers to examine 17,000 passport photos.
Explaining why more men have broad faces than women in early adulthood, but the trend is reversed after the age of 48, he tells i: “People with wider faces are seen as more formidable to their competitors, and more attractive to potential mates.
“So, over our long evolutionary history, this physical trait has been subject to natural selection, but especially between young males where there is more physical violence and competition – strength has more evolutionary value for this group. Because these traits are more beneficial for young males, evolutionary theory predicts, they are more pronounced in young males.
“But our study shows that the effect of face shape on perceived aggressiveness also holds for female faces. In fact, we find the strongest effect of FWHR in females later in life. We don’t understand exactly what aspects of the ageing process cause it, but our data show it translates to greater impressions of aggressiveness in older females.”
The paper admits that there may also be factors less to do with evolution at play. It suggests one possibility might be that “increasingly fewer males with higher FWHR apply for passports later in life – perhaps because many men with the largest FWHR may be removed from society via incarceration or early mortality relative to women” – though Dr White says, “I don’t think this is a particularly likely explanation.”
The difference could also be explained by “changes in head pose behaviour” in males and females of different ages.
Cheryl McCormick, professor of neuroscience at Brock University in Canada, believes FWHR affects how we judge the potential aggression of others, “because relatively wider faces resemble more the expression people make when they are angry: furrowed brow, raising of the upper lip, like a snarl. The ability to detect anger quickly in a person likely confers benefits in allowing one to react as quickly as possible to a potential threat.”
However, we tend to significantly overestimate the connection between these ratios and potential aggression. The discrepancy between people’s perceptions and reality are three to four times larger than the relationship between face shape and actual threatening traits, in what psychologists call “error management bias”.
“It is better to be safe than sorry,” explains Professor McCormick.
“The resemblance between a neutral wider face and a face wearing an angry expression means that the two may be confused: angry looking vs anger-expressing. Better to misjudge someone as a danger than to misjudge someone as not being a threat.”
However, this is all based on our very first impressions. “We are always updating our perceptions as new information comes in – so, in real life, that snap judgment likely disappears as soon as a person smiles or shows some other facet of their personality.”
Dr White adds that, while researchers widely agree on the assumptions we are prone to making based on people’s face shapes, “It is extremely important to note that the evidence suggests that these inferences are almost always wrong – they are a very poor predictor of these behavioural tendencies and personality types. The warning is this: first impressions may count, but they should not be counted on.”