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Can You Judge a Man by His Face?

A new study suggests that you can assess relationship potential just by sight.

Scientists may have made dating a whole lot easier. A new study has found a link between facial structure and dominance—a key trait in relationships. Specifically, the ratio of facial width to upper-facial height (fWHR), which in men becomes pronounced with surges of testosterone at puberty, is associated with various features of dominance. For example, men with larger fWHRs have higher testosterone, and are comparatively more violent, exploitative, and wealthy. Along related lines, fWHR predicts self-perceived power and success. For example, Chief Executive Officers’ with larger fWHRs demonstrate greater financial prowess, and military officers with more dominant visages earned higher ranks throughout their tenure. Moreover, men with wider faces are also more formidable opponents: They are less likely to die from physical violence, suggesting they are either more ferocious fighters or that their skulls are more resistant to injuries.

From an evolutionary perspective, women find dominant men sexually attractive because of the high-quality genes they are thought to have. Facial dominance is highly correlated with facial masculinity, which in turn is believed to signal a strong immune system—a decided advantage for our ancestors. Indeed, research demonstrates that women prefer such men when they are at peak fertility, so, the thinking goes, they can seize upon good genes for posterity. In addition to physical characteristics like masculinity, it has been argued that behavioral traits like social dominance are also advertisements of genetic fitness.

However, while these men can offer genetic gifts and high status, engaging with them comes at a cost. Studies show that men with high fWHRs are more aggressive, deceptive, and less trustworthy. Thus, from the standpoint of evolution, it makes sense for women to procure the genes of these men through short-term liaisons, and bypass long-term relationships. At the same time, social dominance may offer advantages in certain situations, like physical protection. In such instances, these types of short-term benefits may prove more valuable than long-term investments.

But can dominance be written on a man's face? In order to pursue this question, Katherine Valentine of Singapore Management University and her collaborators devised a lively speed-dating study. Specifically, they wanted to test whether fWHR is a physical marker of male dominance, and if men with high fWHRs would be more attractive to women.

Valentine and her team deliberately chose to investigate these questions in a speed-dating forum because the participants were earnest about finding a romantic partner, and thus it served as a natural mating context. The men rotated among the women, chatting with each participant for three minutes in a semi-private booth. A bell sounded the end of the interaction, whereupon the participants indicated their level of interest in the individual they just met. Mutually interested parties were later matched with each other.

The participants also completed a questionnaire in which they rated their own dominance. They also had photographs of their faces taken; the researchers used these images to measure the distance between the top of the lip and lower part of the brow (facial height) and the distance between the widest points of the face by the ears (bizygomatic width). Bizygomatic width was divided by facial height to calculate fWHR. The photographs of the male participants were also rated for dominance, aggressiveness, facial fattiness, and attractiveness. The sample consisted of 78 men and 81 women, with mean ages of 26.5 and 25.4, respectively.

The results were striking. Women perceived men with wide faces as more dominant, and were attracted to them for a short-term but not a long term relationship. The findings also lend support for the idea that dominance is a sexually selected trait that advertises genetic quality. According to the researchers, the results also support the assertion that the ratio between facial width and facial height is a physical marker of male dominance.

Shakespeare famously wrote that the eyes are the window to the soul. But a man's face may be able to tell you something about his personality.

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More about the Blogger: Vinita Mehta, Ph.D. is a licensed Clinical Psychologist in Washington, DC, and an expert on relationships, managing anxiety and stress, and building health and resilience. Dr. Mehta provides speaking engagements for your organization and psychotherapy for adults. She has successfully worked with individuals struggling with depression, anxiety, and life transitions, with a growing specialization in recovery from trauma and abuse.

Dr. Mehta is also the author of the forthcoming book Paleo Love: How Our Stone Age Bodies Complicate Modern Relationships.

You can find Dr. Mehta's other Psychology Today posts here.

Valentine, K. A., Li, N. P., Penke, L., & Perrett, D. I. (in press). Judging a man by the width of his face: The role of facial ratios and dominance in mate choice at speed-dating events. Psychological Science.