Seminar Series

What’s in a face?

We readily make judgments of others from their face but are largely unaware of the accuracy or the basis of these judgments. I will focus on the role of skin tone, 3D face shape and expressive cues in forming our impressions. These cues provide a limited basis for validity in a variety of face judgments. Judgments of health are based upon both shape and colour information. Carotenoid pigments from fruit and vegetables in our diet impart yellowness (or ‘golden glow’) to the skin. This colour is seen as healthy and attractive across cultures and ages (from early childhood to late adulthood). Carotenoid ornaments are used in many species as a signal of health. In humans too we find that carotenoid colour is raised by several aspects of healthy lifestyle, and may provide an index of wellbeing in terms of fitness, and resilience to illness. The 3-D surface information provides face shape cues not only to body height and weight but also to health in terms of cardiovascular status and predisposition to illness. The face shape cues contribute to perceptual judgments of stature and health. Intriguingly, these face shape cues may provide better health predictions than often used medical statistics such as Body Mass Index or % body fat. Judgment of ability is important in diverse arenas (e.g. politics, education and employment). Here too facial appearance is persuasive. We find impressions of intelligence in adult and children’s faces are increased by attractiveness, but eyelid-openness and subtle smiling enhance intelligence ratings beyond the effects of the ‘attractiveness halo’. These findings suggest overgeneralizations from cues that indicate low mood and tiredness, which impair cognitive ability. Lifestyle changes improving sleep patterns and mood will therefore benefit both ability and impressions of competence, which in turn affect educational attainment. In all these studies we find that observers utilize very subtle cues often without explicit knowledge. While face perceptions appear based on valid cues, it is important to realize the limits to the accuracy of resultant judgments.