Monday 31 March 2014

The mind’s construction in a face

Of course, this is only a bit of fun, but presumably you can tell how bright a person is just by looking at them? Such confident judgments are anathema to proper clinical psychologists, who would rather spend an hour giving a Wechsler intelligence test than stoop to such populist nonsense.

Now Karel Kleisner  Veronika Chvátalová, and Jaroslav Flegr have decided to put this silly stereotype to the test in a PLOS One paper “Perceived Intelligence Is Associated with Measured Intelligence in Men but Not Women” and find it not so silly, at least as far as men’s faces are concerned. (As my readers already know, a stereotype is an insight waiting to be proved.) Perhaps the girls are so exclusively judged on prettiness  that their intellectual countenances are ignored, whilst boy’s faces can be judged for both intellectual and sexual purposes.

Let us get the criticisms in quickly. The sample size is small (n=160), and more importantly the faces are from university students and the raters are also university students (mean IQ 125 sd 17). This could be a case of bright people recognising other bright people. There is a restriction of range problem, and the authors should try a representative sample of faces and raters, and are likely to get better results.

I presume no-one was photographed with glasses on, though they “avoided cosmetics, jewellery and other decorations”. On the plus side, they have published their entire data set.

In general, I like the way the authors have presented this paper. They admit that their method of analysing the composition of faces shows no relation to measured IQ, yet that there must be something about the pictures of the men’s faces which allows the positive predictions of their intelligence to be generated. The authors say that this must be due to a cultural stereotype. Weak argument. Where on earth would such a “stereotype” come from? If cultural stereotypes mean anything they would be random, and have low predictive power. This reliance on the notion of “cultural stereotype” is a crucial misunderstanding on their part, because it does not explain how a correct stereotype comes about, other than by someone noticing something which is true.

Their line of best quadratic fit I found something of a disappointment. Above IQ 140 the strength of the prediction falls considerably, and these paragons of intellect are seen as pretty stupid. In statistical terms these outliers are freaks, so in evolutionary terms it might not be worth detecting them. Or they carry so much mutation load that they look awful.

In both sexes, a narrower face with a thinner chin and a larger prolonged nose characterizes the predicted stereotype of high-intelligence, while a rather oval and broader face with a massive chin and a smallish nose characterizes the prediction of low-intelligence.

Do you have a gracile face? For once in my life my larger nose seems to be a benefit in generating a positive stereotype about me.  Do you look like the clever person you actually are, deep inside? If you wish to comment, please append a photograph. If you are over IQ 140 you may omit the photo.


  1. too bad about the restriction in range! if we could include Down syndrome, australian aborigines, severely/multiply disabled (formerly TMR, etc.), along with grad students, there would be at least a modest positive correlation between beauty & brains. (sorry, but few of the IQs below 50 would be considered beautiful - on the outside at least) & super handsome people are usually not severely intellectually disabled, & super bright people are sometimes freakishly hideous or FLK-ish, but not that much.:)

    still, if one were so inclined, one could hide that correlation by looking instead at whether beauty is normally distributed among the very bright (probably! maybe slightly skewed) or looking at whether brains are normally distributed among the hideous (probably yes, or a mild skew).

    the mild positive overall correlation between beauty & brains (if we don't restrict the range) is probably due to a mild negative correlation between beauty & "genetic load"/non-symmetry.

  2. I don't know my iq.

    Now i'm long haired. Observe that i have cranial distortions, my ''right brain side'' of my head is bigger than my ''left brain side''.
    I see that many ashkenazi also have assymetrical faces and cranial ''deformities''.


  3. my facial expression stands corrected :)
    kudos to "Matt" over at hbdchick, who summed the research's twist up nicely in his comment:
    "...we can perceive intelligence from {a} face at a degree better than chance, but our perceptions of intelligence include a face shape element that doesn’t appear to be accurate. There is a “real” part and an “fictional” part to the perception of intelligence and the shape difference in faces found is part of the “fictional” part…"
    so - probably i'm overrating symmetry - BUT, we've probably evolved to overrate symmetry!

  4. Among British football stars, David Beckham has a narrower face than Wayne Rooney, so he looks more high class and intelligent, although they actually seem pretty similar in background:

    Interestingly, Beckham seems to have followed his face into a higher social stratum, marrying Posh Spice, dressing classy, and hanging out with high class people.

  5. First of all, the lead author has said they went through many versions in order to satisfy reviewers and, as we all know, that sometimes leaves the actual authors unsatisfied with aspects of the final paper. I like the distinction between Fictional and Real stereotypes, which is similar to the distinction between Fictional and Real facts. I believe that a moving face (as opposed to a static photo) might "leak" intelligent behaviour cues, though I myself do not possess that skill, and proper intelligence testing shows one is often wrong in those judgments.
    As to the Beckham/Rooney contrast I stand in awe of the Beckham brand. As you observe, Steve, both have similar backgrounds in sociological terms, but have established totally different profiles. I have read your post with interest, and will ponder the narrow face question. Incidentally, if you look at upper class types generally, some look like upper class types and some don't. In the latter case, the gossips make inquiries about backgrounds, otherwise just assume the best. Odd, the power of associations.

  6. 1) I'd be interested in knowing whether dummies would rate other dummies as more intelligent. I'm guessing no.

    2) Bivariate GCTA found no overlap between height and IQ (contrary to my expectations), so I'm guessing the beauty/brains correlation will be modest at best. But on the other hand, there should be no evolutionary reason for a preference for physiognomical beauty to exist unless it was a proxy for other traits/genetic quality, while you could conceivably think of some ways height is actually useful and therefore desirable in itself.

    3) Big schnoz ftw!

  7. I do not know if the (debatable) slight capacity to detect other people's intellects by looking at their faces is normally distributed. I would predict there must be lower limit to this supposed skill.
    I have assumed the very slight correlation between height and IQ was replicated, and the former is a probable fitness indicator.
    I will avoid nasal comparisons.

  8. i'm in the bgi study. does that count?

    i look like a cross between william hurt, john cleese, and andrew mccarthy.

  9. Being invited to participate in the BGI study counts a great deal as far as I am concerned. If you would be so good as to morph the three visages and send it to me as a direct message..............

  10. They really need to introduce something with a title like PLOS GIGO for papers like these.

    There are certainly a ton of failings here but the terribad attempt at using z-scores is the most obvious and clear cut. This is the sort of thing that does provide a lot of evidence for the arguments out there in favor of mass preregistration of studies.