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Facial recognition: what humans, not machines, see

Scenario: a prospective customer walks into your office, shakes hands with you and sits down. You look at his clothes, his bag, even his shoes. You check his haircut, his facial hair, if he has any. You even sniff to see if he smells and, if so, of what. You check out his shoes. You listen to his voice, the accent, inflection, the tone. You analyse the skin on his fingers and palm when you shake hands. You look at his fingernails and, even the way that he sits. And you form a view. But did you know that, subconsciously, there is something else that has influenced you, from the moment you looked at him when he walked through the door? New research says there was.

For thousands of years, there have been people who claim that they can read personalities by facial features. The ancient Chinese art of reading the bumps on faces is as common as the the reading of the number, position and size of moles. And, for those prepared to be open minded, there does seem to be some element of accuracy in it.

In the late 19th Century, in Europe, there developed the science of physiognomy. From time to time, there are academic papers that claim to debunk it as a science but, oddly, there do seem to be some facial characteristics that are more common amongst certain personality types.

Now, researchers at the University of Toronto, have published a paper that says that people as young as 18-22 literally wear their experiences on their faces.

“What we’re seeing is students who are just 18-22 years old have already accumulated enough life experience that it has visibly changed and shaped their face to the point you can tell what their socio-economic standing or social class is,” says Associate Professor Nicholas Rule who co-authored the paper with R Thora Bjornsdottir.

It has long been known that attractiveness forms a part of decision making processes: pop-psychology articles in mass media often say that good looking people get better jobs although the evidence for that is scant. And the new paper says "investigation showed that perceivers categorize social class using minimal facial cues and employ a variety of stereotype-related impressions to make their judgments (sic). "

We should not, therefore be entirely surprised by the results. We should also not be surprised when the study says that we take facial features to make decisions as to the socio-economic standing of those we see. However, and here there is a potential problem with the research, it appears to equate wealth and class which are, in Britain at least, very different things.

The paper does attempt to clarify what is meant - ranging from those who have perceived social standing to those who own the means of production - which is far, far away from e.g. US President Obama's use of the term "middle class" in which, seemingly, the working class have been eradicated.

Basically, the paper adopts a definition of social class as being that which a person feels he belongs to.

The paper then reviews that definition by pointing out that mobility between social classes is far less common than we might imagine and, although it doesn't say this, hereditary features may indicate social background.

We are, the paper argues, hard-wired to look at people and make decisions. We therefore use our perceptions (of ourselves and others) as base-lines against which we make assessments of others. Other research has shown that accents give indication of background and, perhaps more novel, that "lower class" people demonstrate engagement by e.g. nodding while "upper class" people demonstrate a general lack of interest e.g. by checking their mobile phones. That research, by Kraus and Keltner in 2009, seems to follow the general attitude in English society where to affect boredom whilst actually paying great attention is a highly regarded skill of the intellectual and intelligent. In short, the essence of "cool."

The paper is "sold" as indicating whether a person is rich or poor and that turns out to be misleading. What is interesting about it is that it demonstrates that we can, and do, take a momentary glance at faces and in doing so accept or dismiss certain assumptions about them.

Are those assumptions valid? Often, yes, up to a point. It seems, therefore, that these cues might be a broad indicator that further inquiry is needed, in short, that they put you on notice, but are not conclusive. Just like the fact that someone's shoes have dirty heels.

The full paper is at https://www.researchgate.net/p...

Bjornsdottir, R. Thora & O. Rule, Nicholas. (2017). The Visibility of Social Class From Facial Cues. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 113. 530-546. 10.1037/pspa0000091.

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