Annals of masculinity studies: the face

In the October 2011 issue of Psychological Science, the article “A Face Only an Investor Could Love: CEOs’ Facial Structure Predicts Their Firms’ Financial Performance” (by Elaine M. Wong, Margaret E. Ormiston, and Michael P. Haselhuhn). The abstract:

Researchers have theorized that innate personal traits are related to leadership success. Although links between psychological characteristics and leadership success have been well established, research has yet to identify any objective physical traits of leaders that predict organizational performance. In the research reported here, we identified leaders’ facial structure as a specific physical trait that correlates with organizational performance. Specifically, we found that firms whose male CEOs have wider faces (relative to facial height) achieve superior financial performance. Decision-making dynamics within a firm’s leadership team moderate this effect, such that the relationship between a given CEO’s facial measurements and his firm’s financial performance is stronger in firms with cognitively simple leadership teams.

I’ll append some of the article to this posting (Appendix 1), but two salient topics first: the association of certain facial traits with masculinity, and in fact with masculine aggression; and the technical term zygion that turns up in the definition of the facial trait in question.

The facial trait at issue in the Wong et al. article is

the facial width-to-height ratio (WHR), which is the ratio of the distance between the left and right zygion to the distance between the brow and upper lip.

Why this trait? Because of

recent work identifying facial WHR as a sexually dimorphic trait (men’s facial WHRs are larger than women’s) that is independent of body size (Weston, Friday, & Liò, 2007). To better understand this dimorphism, Carré and McCormick (2008) investigated its possible evolutionary origins by examining the psychological and behavioral correlates of facial WHR. Consistent with the idea that dimorphism in facial WHR is a function of sexual selection, this study revealed that intrasex differences in facial WHR are linked to aggression in men, with greater facial WHR being associated with more aggressive behavior (see also Carré, McCormick, & Mondloch, 2009). 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).

I’m not sure I follow all the steps in reasoning here, but the association between higher WHR and male aggression (stereotypically masculine behavior) is still of interest. The larger topic here is that of “masculine” facial traits in general; in a moment I’ll report on another study of masculine facial traits (and their possible connection to mating preferences in different societies). But first the zygion.

In Stedman’s Medical Dictionary (2006), zygion is defined as follows:

In cephalometrics and craniometrics, the most lateral point of the zygomatic arch.

And the zygomatic arch, from Wikipedia:

The zygomatic arch or cheek bone is formed by the zygomatic process of the temporal bone (a bone extending forward from the side of the skull, over the opening of the ear) and the temporal process of the zygomatic bone (the side of the cheekbone), the two being united by an oblique suture

Ah, the zygia are the extreme points of the cheekbones. No ordinary-language term that I know of. Nor is there such a term for the brow-to-upper-lip distance.

The WHR is presumably a contributor to the calculation of facial masculinity in

L.M. DeBruine, B.C. Jones, J.R. Crawford, L.L.M. Welling & A.C. Little (2010). The health of a nation predicts their mate preferences: Cross-cultural variation in women’s preferences for masculinized male faces. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B, 277(1692): 2405-2410. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2009.2184

reported in the Economist article “Face off” A disease-free society helps effeminate men attract women” (5/18/10). From the Economist:

Dr Jones and Dr DeBruine showed around 4,800 women from 30 countries 20 pairs of faces, in their online laboratory, faceresearch.org. The faces were masculinised and feminised versions of the same features. The women, who were all Caucasian in order to control for racial differences, were asked to rate each face for its attractiveness. The results allowed the researchers to calculate an average “masculinity preference” for women from the countries in question.

(The full Economist article is in Appendix 2 below.) The stimuli were presented in pairs like the following, with a “masculinized” version on the left, a “feminized” one on the right:

In addition to the WHR difference, you can easily see a difference in eye size (larger eyes are “feminine”) and jaw shape (a square jaw is “masculine”), and there are some more subtle differences as well.

The versions were created from a set of male faces, transformed by using differences in measurements between a set of male and female faces, adding and subtracting half of these differences from the originals, to get the “masculinized” and “feminized” versions, respectively. Details in Appendix 3. Note that other studies had demonstrated that “masculinized face stimuli manufactured using these methods are perceived to be more masculine than their feminized counterparts”. The Royal Society paper then builds on these results to investigate the association between women’s preference for the masculinized faces and national health in the women’s countries.

Of course, it remains to be seen whether these preferences in experimental situations play out as actual mate choices. Now that would be hard to investigate.

Appendix 1. From the Wong et al. article:

Leadership researchers have theorized that innate characteristics distinguish successful leaders from unsuccessful leaders. Taking an evolutionary approach, these researchers have recently proposed that psychological characteristics (e.g., extraversion) and even physical characteristics (e.g., height) may influence leaders’ effectiveness (Judge, Piccolo, & Kosalka, 2009; Van Vugt, Hogan, & Kaiser, 2008). Despite a growing body of evidence supporting the idea that psychological traits relate to leadership, researchers have yet to empirically identify physical traits that predict successful leadership. Specifically, although intriguing links have been found between the physical characteristics of leaders and observers’ subjective perceptions of leaders’ abilities (e.g., Livingston & Pearce, 2009; Rule & Ambady, 2008; Todorov, Mandisodza, Goren, & Hall, 2005), the important question of whether leaders’ objective physical traits predict organizational performance remains unanswered (Hogan & Hogan, 2001; Judge et al., 2009).

In this article, we address this question by identifying an objective physical trait that predicts leaders’ ability to achieve organizational goals: the facial width-to-height ratio (WHR), which is the ratio of the distance between the left and right zygion to the distance between the brow and upper lip. Specifically, we examined the relationship between the facial WHRs of CEOs and their firms’ financial performance. In addition, we investigated how the broader decision-making dynamics of leadership teams moderate the relationship between leaders’ facial WHRs and organizational performance.

To explore the relationship between leaders’ facial WHRs and organizational outcomes, we drew on recent work identifying facial WHR as a sexually dimorphic trait (men’s facial WHRs are larger than women’s) that is independent of body size (Weston, Friday, & Liò, 2007). To better understand this dimorphism, Carré and McCormick (2008) investigated its possible evolutionary origins by examining the psychological and behavioral correlates of facial WHR. Consistent with the idea that dimorphism in facial WHR is a function of sexual selection, this study revealed that intrasex differences in facial WHR are linked to aggression in men, with greater facial WHR being associated with more aggressive behavior (see also Carré, McCormick, & Mondloch, 2009). 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).

Although research has identified socially undesirable correlates of high facial WHR (e.g., aggression, untrustworthiness), less is known about the socially beneficial correlates of facial WHR that may have supported the evolutionary selection of this trait. We hypothesized that one positive correlate of men’s facial WHR is leadership performance. Our reasoning was based on research demonstrating that aggressive behavior aimed at dominating other individuals or obtaining a resource is often associated with feelings of power (e.g., Keltner, Gruenfeld, & Anderson, 2003). Drawing on this work, we (Haselhuhn & Wong, in press) recently demonstrated that men’s facial WHR is indeed positively associated with a psychological sense of power.

The relationship between facial WHR and power is important because powerful people tend to view their external environment optimistically, to note opportunities, and to focus on the big picture rather than the details (Galinsky, Jordan, & Sivanathan, 2008). High-power people are also more likely than low-power people to attend to task-relevant information (Overbeck & Park, 2001) and to engage in behaviors that are consistent with currently held goals (Galinsky et al., 2008). Together, these characteristics have been associated with effective executive leadership and, often, increased organizational success (Galinsky et al., 2008). On the basis of the previously established links between facial WHR and power, we predicted that organizations headed by male leaders with greater facial WHRs would achieve superior organizational performance.

Appendix 2. The Economist article:

It is not just a sense of fairness that seems to be calibrated to social circumstances (see article). Mating preferences, too, vary with a society’s level of economic development. That, at least, is the conclusion of a study by Ben Jones and Lisa DeBruine of Aberdeen University, in Scotland, published this week in the Proceedings of the Royal Society.

Dr Jones and Dr DeBruine, themselves a married couple, examined what might be called the Deianira paradox. Hercules, demigod and paragon of masculinity in the ancient world, was indirectly done for by his own sexual prowess—his jealous wife, Deianira, accidentally poisoned him with a potion she thought would render him eternally faithful. Deianira’s predicament is a woman’s ultimate dilemma. In a man, the craggy physical characteristics associated with masculinity often indicate a strong immune system and thus a likelihood of his producing healthier offspring than his softer-featured confrères will. But such men are also more promiscuous and do not care as much about long-term relationships, leaving women to raise their kids alone.

Nowadays, sound parenting is often more important to the viability of a man’s offspring than Herculean strength. That, some researchers suspect, may be changing the physical traits that women look for in a mate, at least in some societies. A study carried out in 2004, for example, discovered that women in rural Jamaica found manly types more desirable than did women in Britain, which led to questions about whether those preferences were arbitrary or whether women in different parts of the world might be adapting to circumstances that place different emphasis on manliness in the competitive calculus.

Dr Jones and Dr DeBruine therefore looked to see if there is an inverse relationship between women’s preference for masculine features and national health. Sure enough, they found one. In environments where disease is rampant and the child-mortality rate is high, women prefer masculine men. In places like America and Britain, where knowing how to analyse health-care plans is more important than fighting off infection, effeminate men are just as competitive.

To test their thesis, Dr Jones and Dr DeBruine showed around 4,800 women from 30 countries 20 pairs of faces, in their online laboratory, faceresearch.org. The faces were masculinised and feminised versions of the same features. The women, who were all Caucasian in order to control for racial differences, were asked to rate each face for its attractiveness. The results allowed the researchers to calculate an average “masculinity preference” for women from the countries in question.

Having done so, they compared their results with national-health indicators in each of those countries, including child mortality, life expectancy and the prevalence of communicable disease. Since there is a strong correlation between these variables and a country’s wealth, they controlled for GNP per head by measuring whether it alone accounted for the difference in mating strategy. They also tried to control for cultural factors using a questionnaire called the sociosexual orientation inventory index, which measures differences in mating patterns across cultures—specifically whether women prefer long- or short-term relationships.

Neither wealth nor mating pattern had much impact on women’s preferences for manly men. Disease rates, by contrast, seemed to be directly related to how they went about choosing a mate—the healthier the society, the less women valued masculinity. Hygiene and wimps, it seems, go hand in hand.

These results echo earlier research by Dr DeBruine’s thesis adviser, evolutionary biologist Bobbi Low. She found that polygamy is more common in societies that have more disease. In those societies, a modern Hercules can have his way because women prefer to share him rather than have a wimp to themselves. Healthy living, though, seems to have tipped the balance towards Deianira.

Appendix 3. From the DeBruine, Jones et al. article:

To experimentally manipulate two-dimensional face shape in our stimuli, we first constructed male and female symmetric face prototypes by averaging and symmetrizing the shape of 20 White male faces (age: m = 19.5 years, s.d. = 2.3 years) and 20 White female faces (age: m = 18.4 years, s.d. = 0.7 years) using methods described in previous research (Perrett et al. 1998). Using specialist software (Tiddeman et al. 2001), the vector differences between the average male and female faces were calculated and 50 per cent of these vector differences were added to or subtracted from the shape of 20 individual male faces. Previous studies have demonstrated that masculinized face stimuli manufactured using these methods are perceived to be more masculine than their feminized counterparts (Perrett et al. 1998; DeBruine et al. 2006; Welling et al. 2007, 2008; Jones et al. 2010). These stimuli (see the electronic supplementary material, figure S1 for examples) have been used in several previous studies of individual differences in masculinity preferences (e.g. Jones et al. 2007; Welling et al. 2007, 2008). Note that masculinized and feminized versions of faces differ only in sexually dimorphic aspects of face shape and not in other regards (e.g. they are identical in colour, texture and symmetry).

Participants were presented with 20 pairs of male faces, each pair consisting of a masculinized and feminized version of the same individual. The order of pairs and the side of the screen on which a given image was shown were both randomized across participants. Participants were instructed to choose which face they thought was more attractive for each pair. This method for assessing women’s preferences for masculinized versus feminized versions of men’s faces has been used in many previous studies of individual differences in women’s masculinity preferences (e.g. Jones et al. 2005; DeBruine et al. 2006; Little et al. 2007b; Welling et al. 2007).

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