Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

What Does Evolutionary Theory Have to Do With Your Car?

We apply the same facial judgments to cars as we do to human faces.

One of Volkswagen’s promotional billboards for the latest version of their popular Beetle proclaimed, “It’s a boy!” in reference to the new styling of their 2012 model. Their promotion suggests that prior models were not as boyish as the 2012 model. Why would Volkswagen think that?

First, it is important to know that, over the course of our evolutionary history, people who were best at quickly and accurately determining whether a face was familiar or not, a friend or foe, or was angry or ecstatic, would fare better in the game of life.

It is also the case that faces change with age, and the way faces change with age is universal. Children have relatively larger foreheads and eyes compared to adults; however, they have less prominent brows, noses, and cheekbones. Prior to sexual maturity, it is often difficult to distinguish the sexes based on their faces, but as people reach sexual maturity (when the difference between the sexes begins to matter biologically), the differences become more pronounced.

So, what does evolutionary theory have to do with your car? Well, look at the front end of cars as you drive around today. They are built along a symmetrical design pattern similar to that of a simplified human face (hood/ windshield = forehead; rear-view mirrors = ears; headlights = eyes; grill = nose/mouth). Because cars appear to have a simplified human face, scientists in Austria, the U.S. and Ethiopia teamed up to examine if people “see” age, gender, and status in cars. That is, does a big roundish hood and big headlights make a car seem childlike, or does having wide-set eyes, a broad hood, and a downward curled grill make a car seem like an angry man? The crucial test was if people who were not normally exposed to car marketing saw the same “car faces” as people who are constantly exposed to car marketing.

In short, yes. Whether Austrian or Ethiopian, participants rated cars with headlights that were larger and closer together are “younger.” As headlights became narrower, cars were rated as more masculine, and cars with broad, wide grills were rated as more socially dominant. So, we do apply the same facial judgments to the front of cars as we do to human faces, and this appears to be a human universal.

Of course, this begs the question: What kind of face do you climb into every day? Is your car your baby? Your bad boy? Your reliable sidekick? Are there a set of features that make you think, I want that car! Are they the same or different as the features that attract you to another person? Perhaps it’s worth a quick peek.

At BeyondThePurchase.Org, we are researching the connection between people’s spending habits, happiness, and values. To find out more about how your personality and values influence how you relate to money and spending, we encourage you to first Login or Register with Beyond The Purchase and then take our Sucker Rumination Scale and the Tightwad/Spendthrift Scale. We think you may learn a lot about how you and why you spend your money the way you do.

Kerry Cunningham, a member of the Personality & Wellbeing Laboratory and recent M.S. graduate in Industrial-Organizational Psychology at San Francisco State University, contributed to this post.

More from Ryan T. Howell Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today
More from Ryan T. Howell Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today