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Face structure may predict expressions of prejudice

Feb. 13, 2013
Courtesy of the Association for Psychological Science
and World Science staff

A man’s fa­cial struc­ture may in­di­cate his ten­den­cy to ex­press ra­cially prej­u­diced be­liefs, ac­cord­ing to new re­search pub­lished in the jour­nal Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence.

Past stud­ies have shown that the width of a man’s face in rela­t­ion to its height, or width-to-height ra­tio, is as­so­ci­at­ed with be­hav­iors that are in turn re­lated to the hor­mone tes­tos­ter­one. 

Some re­search­ers have fur­ther linked these be­hav­iors with ag­gres­sion, but au­thors of the new re­search spec­u­lat­ed that they may have more to do with so­cial dom­i­nance than out­right ag­gres­sion. The scien­tists then de­cid­ed to re-ex­am­ine these fa­cial char­ac­ter­is­tics in rela­t­ion to ra­cial prej­u­dice.

This was because “ra­cial prej­u­dice is such a sen­si­tive is­sue and there are so­ci­e­tal pres­sures to ap­pear non­pre­ju­diced. More dom­i­nant in­di­vid­u­als might care less about ap­pearing prej­u­diced, or ex­er­cise less self-regula­t­ion with re­gard to re­port­ing those prej­u­dices, should they ex­ist,” said psy­cho­log­i­cal sci­ent­ist Ed­ward Heh­man, who con­ducted the re­search as a grad­u­ate stu­dent at the Uni­vers­ity of Del­a­ware.

The re­search­ers asked male par­ti­ci­pants about their will­ing­ness to ex­press ra­cially prej­u­diced be­liefs and about the pres­sure they feel to fol­low so­ci­e­tal norms. The re­sults in­di­cated that men who have high­er fa­cial width-to-height ra­tio, as meas­ured from pho­tos, are more likely to ex­press rac­ist re­marks and less con­cerned about how oth­ers per­ceive those. But these men weren’t ac­tu­ally nec­es­sarily more prej­u­diced, the study found; they did­n’t score high­er tests of im­plic­it, or more au­to­mat­ic, ra­cial prej­u­dice.

“Not all peo­ple with great­er fWHRs (fa­cial width-to-height ra­tios) are prej­u­diced, and not all those with smaller fWHRs are non-prej­u­diced,” said Hehman. “You could think about it as a ‘side ef­fect’ of so­cial dom­i­nance — men with great­er fWHR may not care as much about what oth­ers think of them.”

Re­sults from a sec­ond study by the same team sug­gested that ob­servers ac­tu­ally per­ceive and use width-to-height ra­tios when eval­u­at­ing an­oth­er per­son’s de­gree of prej­u­dice. Look­ing at the pho­tos from the first stu­dy, a new group of par­ti­ci­pants eval­u­at­ed men with wid­er, shorter faces as more prej­u­diced, and were able to ac­cu­rately es­ti­mate the tar­get’s self-reported prej­u­di­cial be­liefs. 

A third study al­so showed that non-white par­ti­ci­pants were more mo­ti­vat­ed to ac­cu­rately as­sess peo­ples’ prej­u­dice, and did so with in­creased ac­cu­ra­cy.

The three stud­ies add to a grow­ing lit­er­a­ture ex­plor­ing how peo­ple per­ceive and ac­cu­rately in­fer per­son­al­ity char­ac­ter­is­tics based on phys­i­cal ap­pearance. “This re­search pro­vides the first ev­i­dence for a fa­cial met­ric that not only pre­dicts im­por­tant and con­tro­ver­sial so­cial be­hav­iors, such as re­port­ing prej­u­dices, but can al­so be used by oth­ers to make ac­cu­rate judg­ments,” said Hehman.

Hehman and col­leagues spec­u­late that further re­search may link fa­cial width-to-height ra­tio with ex­pres­sions of prej­u­dice in ar­eas be­yond race.


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A man’s facial structure may indicate his tendency to express racially prejudiced beliefs, according to new research published in the journal Psychological Science. Past studies have shown that the width of a man’s face in relation to its height, or width-to-height ratio, is associated with testosterone-related behaviors, which some researchers have also linked with aggression. But authors of the new research speculated that these behaviors may have more to do with social dominance than outright aggression. They decided to examine the facial characteristics in relation to racial prejudice. “Racial prejudice is such a sensitive issue and there are societal pressures to appear nonprejudiced. More dominant individuals might care less about appearing prejudiced, or exercise less self-regulation with regard to reporting those prejudices, should they exist,” said psychological scientist Edward Hehman, who conducted the research as a graduate student at the University of Delaware. The researchers asked male participants about their willingness to express racially prejudiced beliefs and about the pressure they feel to follow societal norms. The results indicated that men who have higher facial width-to-height ratio, as measured from photos, are more likely to express racist remarks and less concerned about how others perceive those. But these men weren’t actually necessarily more prejudiced, the study found; they didn’t score higher tests of implicit, or more automatic, racial prejudice. “Not all people with greater fWHRs (facial width-to-height ratios) are prejudiced, and not all those with smaller fWHRs are non-prejudiced,” said Hehman. “You could think about it as a ‘side effect’ of social dominance — men with greater fWHR may not care as much about what others think of them.” Results from a second study by the same team suggested that observers actually perceive and use width-to-height ratios when evaluating another person’s degree of prejudice. Looking at the photos from the first study, a new group of participants evaluated men with wider, shorter faces as more prejudiced, and were able to accurately estimate the target’s self-reported prejudicial beliefs. A third study also showed that non-white participants, whose outcomes are more likely to be influenced by their race or ethnicity, were more motivated to accurately assess targets’ prejudice. This greater motivation, in turn, was associated with increased accuracy. The three studies add to a growing literature exploring how people perceive and accurately infer personality characteristics based on physical appearance. “This research provides the first evidence for a facial metric that not only predicts important and controversial social behaviors, such as reporting prejudices, but can also be used by others to make accurate judgments,” said Hehman. These studies may open up new avenues of research; Hehman and colleagues speculate facial width-to-height ratio may be linked with explicit prejudice in areas beyond race.