3 Things Your Face Tells The World

Research reveals the ways our faces betray who we are.

Posted Mar 31, 2017

“The face is a picture of the mind with the eyes as its interpreter,” Marcus Tullius Cicero the ancient Roman orator, statesman and writer once said. Though he wasn't a social scientist, research that would be published thousands of years after he lived would nevertheless support his statement. With a smile or a frown, our faces can effortlessly communicate to others how we're feeling. But recent studies have found that the human face can also convey essential characteristics that make us who we are. Here are just three things our faces can tell the world:

Aggression: Can a person's face reveal if they are aggressive? Yes—if you're male—according to research. Studies have found that the ratio of facial width-to-height (i.e., how narrow or wide the face is) is associated with aggression. Take a study in which participants viewed photographs of men wearing neutral expression for 1200 milliseconds, and whose behavioral aggressiveness had been assessed. Participants were then asked to estimate the inclination of these photographed men to be aggressive. What did the researchers find? The participants' estimates correlated not only with the facial width-to-height ratio in both the photographs of the men, but also their actual aggressive behavior. These results were replicated in a follow up study in which participants were exposed to the photographs of these men, but for only a mere 39 milliseconds. These findings support the notion that facial width-to-height ratio may be an advertisement of aggressiveness, and is consistent with research demonstrating that higher levels of testosterone are related to both wider faces and dominant behavior in men.

Sexual Orientation: Can you tell whether a person is gay from their facial structure? Remarkably, a handful of studies have found that certain facial features are associated with sexual orientation. Consider a study that looked at this relationship in a novel way. Investigators recruited straight and gay men and women at a Canadian university campus as well as Canadian Pride and sexuality events, took their photographs, and from these images computed their facial metrics using a sophisticated facial modelling program. The results were striking: A person's facial structure differed depending on their sexual orientation. Gay and straight women differed in 17 out of 63 facial features, while gay and straight men differed in 11 out of 63 facial features. There were also some significant differences between the sexes. Gay women had noses that were more turned up (as they are also more turned up in straight men), mouths that were more puckered, smaller foreheads, and slightly more masculine face shapes than straight women. Gay men had cheeks that bulged out more, shorter noses (as they are also more short in straight women), and foreheads that were more tilted back than those of the straight men. The authors argue that understanding what gives rise to these differences in facial structure might also lead to a deeper understanding of the development of sexual orientation.

Personality: Is your personality written on your face? Indeed, research has found associations between facial features and personality. One facinating study looked at this relationship by using the widely known “Big Five” personality model (which includes Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism) and 3D images of faces of 834 Han Chinese volunteers, and examined the statistical links between them. What did the results reveal? In men, the factors of Agreeableness and Conscientiousness were significantly correlated with certain facial characteristics. Those who were higher on Agreeableness had eyebrows that appeared to be “lifted up” and smaller forehead spans (i.e., the distance between the eyebrows and the hairline). By contrast, lower levels of Agreeableness were associated with the opposite, that is, a jaw and eyebrows that were sunken. Similarly, higher levels of Conscientiousness were correlated with “lifted eyes” and “laterally extended” eyebrows, as well as with eyes that were opened wider. These faces also had a “withdrawing” upper lip and tightened jaw muscles, with visible tension around the mouth. This is in contrast to the apparently relaxed face associated with low levels of Conscientiousness, with brows and eyes that naturally drooped due to gravity as well as relaxed muscles around mouth. The authors note that those who showed lower levels of Agreeableness and Conscientiousness were similar in that both faces showed a sense of relaxation and indifference.

For women, Extraversion was the only significant factor that correlated with facial structure. Higher levels of Extraversion were related to more protruding nose and lips, a recessive chin and masseter muscles (the jaw muscles used in chewing). By contrast, the face of those with lower Extraversion levels showed the reverse pattern, in which the area around the nose appeared to press against the face. These findings suggest that perhaps psychological traits can—to some degree—be read on a person's face, though more studies would be needed to understand this phenomenon.

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Vinita Mehta, Ph.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist in Washington, D.C., and an expert on relationships, managing anxiety and stress, and building health and resilience. She provides speaking engagements for your organization and psychotherapy for adults. She has successfully worked with individuals struggling with depression, anxiety, and life transitions, and recovery from trauma and abuse. She is also the author of the forthcoming book, Paleo Love: How Our Stone Age Bodies Complicate Modern Relationships.


Justin M. Carré, Cheryl M. McCormick, Catherine J. Mondloch. Facial Structure Is a Reliable Cue of Aggressive Behavior. October 2009

Sile Hu, Jieyi Xiong, Pengcheng Fu, Lu Qiao, Jingze Tan, Li Jin, Kun Tang. Signatures of personality on dense 3D facial images. Scientific Reports doi: 10.1038/s41598-017-00071-5. May 27, 2016.

Skorska MN1, Geniole SN, Vrysen BM, McCormick CM, Bogaert AF. Facial Structure Predicts Sexual Orientation in Both Men and Women. Arch Sex Behav. 2015 Jul;44(5):1377-94. doi: 10.1007/s10508-014-0454-4. Epub 2014 Dec 31.