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Bad-boy looks are measurable—and do predict bad deeds, study concludes

Jan. 7, 2011
Special to World Science  

You can to some ex­tent assess a per­son’s trust­wor­thi­ness from their looks, ac­cord­ing to new re­search that could up­set dec­ades of settled sci­en­tif­ic think­ing.

In a stu­dy, Mi­chael Hasel­huhn and Elaine Wong of the Uni­vers­ity of Wisconsin-Milwaukee found that men whose faces are rel­a­tively wide for their height are sta­tis­tic­ally more likely to act un­eth­ic­ally. 

Their find­ing, pub­lished in the Feb. 7 is­sue of the re­search jour­nal Pro­ceed­ings of the Roy­al So­ci­e­ty B, fol­lows an­oth­er study that found such men are al­so sta­tis­tic­ally “more likely to ex­ploit the trust of oth­ers.” That work ap­peared in the March 2010 is­sue of the re­search jour­nal Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence.

“Our re­sults dem­on­strate that stat­ic [fixed] phys­i­cal at­tributes can in­deed serve as re­li­a­ble cues of im­mor­al ac­tion,” Hasel­huhn and Wong wrote, adding that their find­ings ap­pear to apply to males on­ly. “Per­haps some men truly are bad to the bone.”

The idea that phys­i­cal traits are linked to a per­son’s char­ac­ter has a very con­tro­ver­sial his­to­ry, as it has be­come as­so­ci­at­ed with rac­ism at var­i­ous times. In the 19th cen­tu­ry a “science” called phre­nol­o­gy gained pop­u­lar­ity that pur­ported to as­sess char­ac­ter and in­tel­lec­tu­al abil­i­ties based on skull shape; this field lat­er fell in­to dis­re­pute as some of its key tenets were found to be un­re­liable. “The idea that per­sist­ent fa­cial char­ac­ter­is­tics can pre­dict un­eth­ical ac­tion has largely been dis­missed out of hand” by sci­en­tists in re­cent times, Hasel­huhn and Wong wrote.

How­ev­er, they added, re­cent find­ings have linked more ag­gres­sive ten­den­cies in men to faces that are wide rel­a­tive to their height. Such men are sta­tis­tic­ally more likely “to re­tal­i­ate to per­ceived slights by oth­ers [and] to act in their own self-in­ter­est, even if it means vi­o­lat­ing an­oth­er’s trust,” Hasel­huhn and Wong wrote. They cit­ed the 2010 Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence study and an­oth­er that ap­peared that jour­nal’s Oct. 2009 is­sue, by Jus­tin M. Carré of Brock Un­ivers­ity in On­tar­i­o and col­leagues.

In their own stu­dy, Hasel­huhn and Wong con­clud­ed that the great­er propens­ity of men with these fa­cial types to act un­eth­ic­ally flows from a sense among these men that they have more pow­er than av­er­age. There­fore, they tend to feel they can get away with it.

Hasel­huhn and Wong re­cruited 192 Mas­ters of Busi­ness Ad­min­istra­t­ion stu­dents for one ex­pe­ri­ment, group­ing them in­to pairs in which they were in­structed to en­gage in a fic­tion­al ne­gotia­t­ion over a prop­er­ty sale. Un­be­knownst to them, the terms of the ne­gotia­t­ion were set up by the re­search­ers to in­clude some clear tempta­t­ions for ly­ing.

In a sec­ond ex­pe­ri­ment, the re­search­ers asked 103 par­ti­ci­pants to sub­mit a num­ber of free en­tries to a lot­tery. The num­ber of en­tries was sup­posed to be equal to the to­tal of two di­ce rolled by the par­ti­ci­pant elec­tron­ic­ally. But no one mon­i­tored these rolls, so it was up to the par­ti­ci­pants’ hon­or—a­gain, a cheat­ing op­por­tun­ity.

In both stud­ies, the re­search­ers found that the par­ti­ci­pants with rel­a­tively wid­er faces had a great­er ten­den­cy to lie or cheat. In the sec­ond stu­dy, based on the re­sults of a sur­vey of par­ti­ci­pants, the sci­en­tists al­so con­clud­ed that feel­ings of pow­er en­abled these less scru­pu­lous par­ti­ci­pants to cheat more.

“Our re­search pro­vides a new per­spec­tive to the study of the ev­o­lu­tion­ary founda­t­ions of mor­al­ity by iden­ti­fy­ing a ge­net­ic­ally de­ter­mined phys­i­cal pre­dictor of un­eth­ical be­haviour,” the re­search­ers wrote. 

A major objection to the idea that facial fea­tures could predict bad be­ha­vior, they said, has been that men with such fea­tures would swiftly drop out of the gene pool. Pre­sum­ably, no one would trust them so they would have trouble mat­ing. This ob­ject­ion loses force, Hasel­huhn and Wong ar­gued, if you suppose that the draw­backs of having such a face may be coun­ter­ba­lanced by an ad­vant­age, namely that those faces also signal ag­gres­sion and domi­nance—a trait that ap­peals to many women.


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Contrary to decades of traditional scientific thinking, you can to some extent predict a person’s trustworthiness based on their looks, according to new research. In a study, Michael Haselhuhn and Elaine Wong of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee found that men whose faces are relatively wide for their height are statistically more likely to act unethically. Their finding, published in the Feb. 7 issue of the research journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, follows another study that found such men are also statistically “more likely to exploit the trust of others.” That research appeared in the March 2010 issue of the research journal Psychological Science. “Our results demonstrate that static [fixed] physical attributes can indeed serve as reliable cues of immoral action,” Haselhuhn and Wong wrote, adding that their findings appear to apply to males only. “Perhaps some men truly are bad to the bone.” The idea that physical traits are linked to a person’s character has a very controversial history, as it has become associated with racism at various times. In the 19th century a “science” called phrenology gained popularity that purported to assess character and intellectual abilities based on skull shape, but this field later fell into disrepute. “The idea that persistent facial characteristics can predict unethical action has largely been dismissed out of hand” by scientists in recent times, Haselhuhn and Wong wrote. However, they added, recent findings have linked more aggressive tendencies in men to faces that are wide relative to their height. Such men are statistically more likely “to retaliate to perceived slights by others [and] to act in their own self-interest, even if it means violating another’s trust,” Haselhuhn and Wong wrote. They cited the 2010 Psychological Science study and another that appeared that journal’s Oct. 2009 issue, by Justin M. Carré of Brock University in Ontario and colleagues. In their own study, Haselhuhn and Wong concluded that the greater propensity of men with these facial types fo act unethically flows from a sense among these men that they have more power than average. Therefore, they tend to feel they can get away with it. Haselhuhn and Wong recruited 192 Masters of Business Administration students for one experiment, grouping them into pairs in which they were instructed to engage in a fictional negotation over a property sale. Unbeknownst to them, the terms of the negotation were set up by the researchers to include some clear temptations for lying. In a second experiment, the researchers asked 103 participants to submit a number of free entries to a lottery. The number of entries was supposed to be equal to the total of two dice rolled by the participant electronically. But no one monitored these rolls, so it was up to the participants’ honor—again, a cheating opportunity. In both studies, the researchers found that the participants with relatively wider faces had a greater tendency to lie or cheat. In the second study, based on the results of a survey of participants, the scientists also concluded that feelings of power enabled these less scrupulous participants to cheat more. “Our research provides a new perspective to the study of the evolutionary foundations of morality by identifying a genetically determined physical predictor of unethical behaviour,” the researchers wrote.