What’s In a Face?

Exactly how appearance affects our daily life is something we might not be aware of – it happens mostly subconsciously and most of us cannot say how appearances of others affect our daily life decisions. The impact of faces is shown in our impressions of people as well as in our behavior towards them, such as whom we choose to help, whom we choose to hire, or whom we ask for a date. Appearance matters not only when our reactions to faces are arguably relevant to our choices, but even when those choices should be driven by more objective information.

In Asia, there is a long tradition of studying faces and how different facial features impacts a person’s life. The art of reading faces is called physiognomy, and eastern face readers pay much more attention to the strong relation between facial appearance and character than do western physiognomists. Chinese face readers believe that face features and psychological character are linked and if one such facial appearance should change, a change in the other will follow.

Thus, the life of a person is not determined by the original natural facial appearance, because changing the face will change the destiny. That is why traditional physiognomists believes that plastic surgery might not be good for you as it alters your destiny. Asian traditional physiognomists believe that a round and supple oval face shape is equivalent to a good destiny in life, and will bring good influence to the family such as prosperity and luck.

According to Hu Lan, an expert in Chinese classical physiognomy – “when a face is round, fleshy and soft, a woman is considered fortunate and can bring her husband good luck. If a woman has high and thin cheekbones, with pointed chin, it denotes an unlucky person who is secretive and may face troubles in life, or bring harm to her husband.”

As modern society progress, many of these beliefs have slowly faded away and been replaced with how we now perceive attractiveness, beauty and good looks. Today high cheekbones would generally be considered attractive, and a round, fleshy face less so.

Top image: A wide forehead, round face and portly figure were regarded as characteristics of beauty in the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907). 

Above Image: The late Shanghai actress Hu Die was considered to fit the bill when it came to the popular concept of beauty. She had chubby cheeks, arch eyebrows, a little dimple, an ample bosom and full hips. 

These impressions typically are assumed to reflect cultural teachings and it is interesting to understand that perceptions change through the change of era. The Koreans and Chinese requested to have plastic surgery to mimic their favourite celebrities. Why? It is believed that good looking people tend to get higher chance of stardom, getting hired or even getting a good spouse whom they desired. As a matter of fact, research does show that this is true.

It sounds and looks like looks do matter.  First impression matters.

Physiognomy, is the origin of many human decisions, efforts, actions, expectations, fears, and hopes. This would explain the reason why companies are endorsing positive images, celebrities, movie stars, athletes and people who are influential to promote their products, branding and image. They became the spokes-person for their brands which make perfect sense as faces of high value fetch high returns on investment.

Why do we perceive people with attractive faces to have positive traits?  Sports celebrities with highly masculine faces may indicate fitness because it demonstrates an ability to withstand the stress that testosterone places on the immune system. High femininity in female faces may signal fitness by association with sexual maturity and fertility. Youthfulness is related to fitness in as much as ageing often carries declines in cognitive and physical functioning.

But is the value of the face solely a function of the fame the owner has, or are some properties really inherent in the face features as the Asian face readers claim? To test this we might experiment with morphing high value faces to create a new face that is not instantly recognizable, but might still convey positive feelings.

As an example we can combine a traditionally prosperous Asian face, Jackie Chan’s which is somewhat round and fleshy, with a western high value face of a masculine sports star, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and see if it will make any difference to our perception of the face’s value.


International actor, Jackie Chan           International football player, Zlatan Ibrahimovic  

Above middle image shows a combination of Jackie Chan + Zlatan after face morphed.

Without doing some market survey, we cannot draw any real conclusions about the result, but the first impression is quite positive. Both faces’ good traits seem to carry over to the morph, in a slightly toned down fashion. This will bring insights why some companies choose to use pan ethnicity to market their products.

If positive traits carry over into a morphed face, maybe what is perceived as a bad person’s face will also still be detectable after morphing.

In my next article of “What’s in a face Part II”, I shall feature more in-depth on the above two artists and physiogonomy.

Perhaps we will someday understand more precisely how we perceive beauty in our modern day by using the neuroscientific technology such as EEG and Eye-tracking.

References: Folstad & Karter, 1992, Phili Barden, 2013, Zebrowitz, 1997, China Asia Daily.