Monday, November 14, 2011

The Return of Physiognomy

Physiognomy "is the assessment of a person's character or personality from their outer appearance, especially the face." Although one might think of physiognomy as an outdated pseudoscience, along with its brethren craniometry and phrenology, facial phenotyping has undergone a resurgence of interest. Most recently, a study by Wong et al. (2011) looked at facial width and financial success in male CEOs:
Can head shape determine chances of business success?
Research suggests that the shape of a chief executive's head can show whether he will be successful
But why even ask such a question? In general, the authors noted that certain psychological traits (e.g., extraversion) are associated with leadership ability, so they wondered whether an objective physical trait could predict leadership success. More specifically, they examined whether the facial width-to-height ratio (WHR) of 55 male CEOs was related to the financial performance of their companies. There's actually a sizable literature on facial WHR and aggressiveness in men:
Researchers have theorized that this relationship exists because higher facial WHRs make men seem more physically imposing, which minimizes the chance of retribution for their aggressive actions (Stirrat & Perrett, 2010).
In addition, facial WHR is a sexually dimorphic trait thought to be influenced by the effects of testosterone during adolescence. It can be objectively measured from photographs, which in this case were obtained from internet sources. The Fortune 500 firms were selected based on extensive media coverage and availability of online photos.
The 55 firms in our sample represented a range of industries, including computer manufacturing, transportation, and retail; on average, the firms had generated $38 billion in sales and had 119,684 full-time employees. The organizations in the sample included General Electric, Hewlett-Packard, and NIKE, Inc.
Results indicated that high facial WHR did indeed predict financial performance. Is this because of a more aggressive leadership style? Other studies have found a relationship between facial WHR and physical aggression (Carré & McCormick, 2008). Does this mean that successful CEOs are more likely to win bar fights (adjusted for age)? Or to spend a greater amount of time in the penalty box, so to speak?

Canadian researchers Carré and McCormick (2008) actually did find a correlation between facial WHR in hockey players and time spent in the penalty box, which was used as a proxy for physical aggressiveness. So should the most violent hockey players be the leaders of Fortune 500 companies? Perhaps, if they're companies with "cognitively simple" leadership teams,1 because the facial-financial link was stronger for CEOs of such firms.

Or not. Wong et al. (2011) conclude:
In sum, our study has advanced leadership research by showing that objective facial metrics of male leaders, as well as the broader context in which these leaders make decisions, are closely related to organizational performance. Although men with high facial WHRs may be aggressive and untrustworthy in interpersonal interactions (Carré & McCormick, 2008; Stirrat & Perrett, 2010), our research suggests that, at a societal level, organizational success may compensate for individual transgressions...

What Luscious Lips You Have

The above studies found significant physiognomic patterns in men, but these results did not hold for women. In contrast, a recent study (Brody & Costa, 2011)2 claimed that a female facial feature, prominence of the upper lip tubercule, correlated with....... the ability to achieve vaginal orgasm!

Why would you ever propose such a thing? The infamous Stuart Brody has an agenda, and it's that unprotected penile-vaginal sex is the only mature and worthwhile form of sex.
A clinical observation (by the present senior author in discussion with colleagues) of an association between a novel visible marker (of likely prenatal origin) and enhanced likelihood of vaginal orgasm among coitally experienced women led to the hypothesis empirically tested in the present study. The hypothesis is that a more prominent tubercle of the upper lip is associated with vaginal orgasm (measured both as ever having had a vaginal orgasm, as well as vaginal orgasm consistency in the past month).
Now Professor Brody, what sort of "clinical observation" led you to this fanciful idea? Oh I don't know, perhaps the same one that led you to propose that you can tell by the way she walks (see Scicurious, Dr. Isis, and Jezebel). For extensive critiques of the methodology used in these studies (e.g., definitions of various sexual activities, bias, self-selection, etc.), I recommend reading Dr Petra.

Back to the lip tubercle... Why the lip tubercle? Why not 2D:4D digit ratio, which is influenced by prenatal androgens? Brody and Costa:
There is substantial variability in the degree to which the tubercle of the lip develops. Other than its mention in the basic anatomic literature and surgical literature (especially with regard to reconstruction of labial malformation or as part of a package of aesthetic modifications to the lips), we do not know of scientific literature on aspects of the tubercle of the lip that might directly impinge upon sexual function.
OK then, the idea was pulled out of a "clinical observation" hat. Were there any other facial characteristics or bodily features that were examined but not found to correlate with penile-vaginal intercourse (PVI)?

Then we have the offensive speculation that... is possible that a flatter or absent tubercle might have something in common with the at times subtle lip abnormalities associated with subtle neuropsychologic abnormalities in marginal cases of fetal alcohol syndrome...
Ladies! If you have a flat or absent tubercle, you're neuropsychologically and sexually abnormal! And how was the tubercle defined? By the participants themselves, who looked in a mirror and interpreted the verbal definitions3 as they saw fit [91 of the 405 women who completed the online survey were excluded because they didn't have a mirror handy].

The Return of Physiognomy Redux

I admit that I was prepared to trash the facial width/CEO study, but upon reading it I found the following scientific merits:
  • hypothesis-driven
  • based on objective measurements, not self-report
  • population was not self-selected
I'm not an anthropologist or a developmental biologist and can't properly critique many aspects of that study, and I certainly won't get into evo psych here. But the contrast with the lip tubercle/vaginal orgasm paper was stark, because the latter didn't have any of the above scientific merits. Speculation about prenatal lip development is different from evidence for the effects of testosterone during adolescence.

Finally, I'm left to wonder about 2D:4D digit ratio and "vaginal orgasm through PVI alone." Brody et al. have a study on the correlation between women's finger sensitivity and "partnered sexual behavior" [but not orgasms]. Didn't they ever do hand tracings?


1 "Cognitive complexity refers to the degree to which individuals and teams construe their social world in a multidimensional way."

2 h/t United Academics - A woman’s lip shape hints at her ability to achieve vaginal orgasms. Also see Shape of a woman's pout may mean better sex.

3 Here are the verbal definitions:
The question on the lip tubercle was “Look closely in a mirror at the centre of your lip. Compared to the part of your top lip next to the centre, is the centre: a) prominently and sharply raised, b) prominently and gradually raised, c) slightly and sharply raised, d) slightly and gradually raised, e) flat, f) slightly lower than flat, g) no mirror available now.”


Brody, S., & Costa, R. (2011). Vaginal Orgasm Is More Prevalent Among Women with a Prominent Tubercle of the Upper Lip. The Journal of Sexual Medicine, 8 (10), 2793-2799 DOI: 10.1111/j.1743-6109.2011.02331.x

Carré JM, McCormick CM. (2008). In your face: Facial metrics predict aggressive behavior in the laboratory and in varsity and professional hockey players. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 275:2651–2656.

Stirrat M, Perrett D I. (2010). Valid facial cues to cooperation and trust: Male facial width and trustworthiness. Psychological Science 21:349–354.

Wong, E., Ormiston, M., & Haselhuhn, M. (2011). A Face Only an Investor Could Love: CEOs' Facial Structure Predicts Their Firms' Financial Performance. Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/0956797611418838

Figure 1 (Brody & Costa, 2011). Examples of the six lip tubercle categories [NOTE: which were not shown to the participants].

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At November 14, 2011 12:28 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

This Brody is a piece of work. Self-selecting online respondents as a sample group?

At November 14, 2011 2:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You may be interested in this article
Facial phenotypes in subgroups of pre-pubertal boys with autism spectrum disorders are correlated with clinical phenotypes
in Molecular autism

At March 07, 2019 9:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"It is possible that X might have something in common with abnormalities associated with abnormalities in marginal cases of Y."

"If you have X you have Y!"

Are you proud of making such obvious strawmen?


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