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Markus C. Schulte von Drach

BERLIN - Can we draw conclusions about another person’s character traits based on their facial or body features? We have a tendency to base ourselves on outer appearance when forming first impressions of other people.

Studies have shown that the shape of a face plays a role in our perception of how trustworthy somebody is. British psychologists reported that men with wide faces tended to abuse the trust of other test subjects more than men with narrow faces. The mistrust of other test subjects toward the wide-faced subjects was also greater from the onset.

And now Czech researchers have confirmed those results. They found that the shape of a face plays a role in our judgment of someone’s character – but also facial expression and eye color. Men with blue eyes, write Karel Kleisner of Charles University in Prague and his colleagues in the online scientific journal Plos One, come across as less trustworthy than men with brown eyes.

In an earlier study, the Czech scientists had shown that brown eyes – in men – often went with a certain shape of face that people tend to associate with happy and trustworthy people. Blue eyes on the other hand often go hand in hand with male faces that appear angry, and hence less trustworthy.

Based on this, the psychologists hypothesized that there were significant correlations between face shape and eye color and that brown-eyed individuals were perceived as more trustworthy than blue-eyed ones. This was the basic idea the present study set out to examine, while also examining if eye color alone plays a role in the impression we have of others.

To carry out the study, researchers showed students neutral photographs of 40 male students and 40 female students between the ages of 19-26 and asked them to rate the faces as more or less trustworthy. Those in the pictures were young adults with blue or brown eyes.

Unfortunately the study does not include exactly how many people took part in the test. Kleisner and his colleagues first say that the photographs were rated by "238 participants (142 females and 98 males)." They then go on to say: "Out of a total of 248 raters, 105 judged trustworthiness, 103 attractiveness, and 30 dominance. The raters differed in eye color: 99 had blue; 61 green; and 78 brown eyes." That makes 238, then 240, then 248, and back to 238. It can only be hoped that the discrepancies are typos, and that the statistical information was correctly calculated.

In any case, the psychologists report that: "All raters, irrespective of their own eye color, perceived the brown-eyed faces as more trustworthy than the blue-eyed ones."

The researchers also confirmed a strong correlation between eye color and facial shape. Blue-eyed men with oval faces with a longer chin and smaller mouth, relatively small eyes and fairly widely separated eyebrows were perceived as less trustworthy than brown-eyed men with a broader chin, bigger mouth, bigger nose, and prominent eyebrows that were closer together.

Judging a book by its cover

To see if eye color alone played a role, the researchers changed the eye color on the photographs of the men and showed them to 106 test subjects. This time there was no difference for blue or brown eyes: facial shape was the determining factor.

The psychologists conclude that "although the brown-eyed faces were perceived as more trustworthy than the blue-eyed ones, it was not brown eye color per se that caused the stronger perception of trustworthiness but rather the facial features associated with brown eyes." Why there is an apparent relationship between eye color and facial shape is still unclear.

Despite these results, attempts in daily life to draw conclusions from the shape of peoples’ faces and their eye color are best left alone. It is true that a series of studies has shown that when we meet somebody for the first time, we often do identify character traits within seconds. British psychologists David Perett and Anthony Little demonstrated that in their study of students who were instantly gauged as for example conscientious, or extraverted.

But these studies do nothing more than give indications of possible leads – nothing more. A person’s character is formed genetically and apparently also by the influence of hormones in the mother’s womb. A major role in the formation of a personality is also played by a person’s experiences, particularly those made in the various stages of childhood socialization – and those aren’t reflected in the shape of a face. The old chestnut “Don't judge a book by its cover” is particularly relevant here.

Anybody who fails to take this into account runs the risk of repeating mistakes made by scientists who have in the past tried through systematic observation to link body features with character. In the 18th century, Swiss pastor Johann Caspar Lavater came up with his popular theory of physiognomy so ridiculed by his contemporary, physicist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg.

In the 19th century, Italian doctor Cesare Lombroso also missed the mark when he tried to identify and catalogue typical body traits of “born criminals.” The Nazis later used his work to justify the persecution, forced sterilization and euthanasia of criminals.

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