Nonverbal cues constitute important forms of communication that are transmitted between individuals. Of course, humans utilize vision, their dominant sense, in reading most such signals. Not surprisingly, an individual’s face emits many of these important nonverbal messages be it via specific facial regions (e.g., “the eyes are the window to the soul”) or a broad range of facial features that capture the basal emotions (anger, disgust, happiness, sadness, surprise, and fear). While people have evolved the ability to accurately read these affective states, are they able to gauge general personality traits and behavioral dispositions merely by looking at someone’s face?

In a 2013 paper published in Biology Letters, authors Gillian Rhodes, Grace Morley, and Leigh W. Simmons set out to determine whether men and women could gauge individuals’ sexual infidelity simply by viewing their facial photos. On a related note, see here for one of my earlier articles regarding people’s ascriptions of likely sexual infidelity via auditory cues (hearing individuals’ voices). Returning to today’s study in question, sixty-eight participants (equal number of men and women) rated 189 facial photos (101 men, 88 women) after a three-second exposure on likely unfaithfulness and untrustworthiness (using a 1-10 scale, the higher the number the more unfaithful/untrustworthy the person is judged as likely being). Note that the ratings were opposite-sexed. The facial stimuli were taken from an earlier study where the researchers had collected the following information on each portrayed individual: attractiveness ratings, sexually dimorphic facial features (masculine in men; feminine in women), self-reported sexual infidelity (number of individuals with whom one has cheated), and self-reported poaching (number of sexual partners who were in existing relationships). Hence, the evaluations on trustworthiness and faithfulness could then be compared to the actual self-reported measures of infidelity and poaching.

While the researchers reported a wide range of findings, I will focus on a few key ones dealing strictly with the unfaithfulness metric (readers interested in the detailed data preparation and data analytic issues should refer to the original paper):

(1) Women were much better than men at gauging the unfaithfulness of opposite-sex individuals. Specifically, their unfaithfulness ratings of men’s faces correlated with the men’s self-reported infidelity measures. The obtained correlations were 0.16 (p < .04) for the combined infidelity index (comprised of sexual infidelity and sexual poaching), 0.15 (p < .06) for cheating alone, and 0.17 (p < .04) for poaching alone. Hence, women seem moderately capable of detecting a man’s sexual infidelity simply by viewing his face for three seconds.

(2) None of the latter correlations were significant in men’s ratings of women’s unfaithfulness (a combined infidelity index was not computed for women’s self-reported cheating and poaching data, as the data analyses found that no such index was warranted). In other words, men were incapable of discerning a woman’s self-reported unfaithfulness subsequent to viewing her face for three seconds.

(3) Subsequent analyses using multiple regressions and dichotomous classifications of faithfulness and unfaithfulness, set at score ranges of less than or equal to five and greater than five respectively (on the 1-10 scale), revealed that women were much less likely than men to fail to detect unfaithfulness for both the cheating data (p = .003) as well as the poaching data (p = .012). This further confirms the fact that women appear to have a greater ability than men do in detecting unfaithfulness in opposite-sex targets by merely viewing facial photos for a short period of time (three seconds).

To the extent that cuckoldry is a profound threat to men’s evolutionary interests, it seems quite surprising that they appear to have little to no ability to gauge women’s unfaithfulness history (see here for one of my earlier posts on the links between estradiol levels and a woman’s likely infidelity). I suspect that the fact that women were shown to be better than men at this task is comforting to the politically correct chattering classes. On the other hand, I pity those researchers who might ever uncover a finding that suggests that men are superior on some other task. Well, that would be outright sexist! ☺

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