Physiognomy and the pre/trans fallacy


Physiognomy, according to Wikipedia, is “the assessment of a person’s character or personality from his outer appearance, especially the face.” Wikipedia continues:

The credence of such study [physiognomy] has varied from time to time. The practice was well-accepted by the ancient Greek philosophers, but fell into disrepute in the Middle Ages when practised by vagabonds and mountebanks. It was then revived and popularised by Johann Kaspar Lavater before falling from favour again in the 20th century.

It is now being revived once more, as some new research suggests that people’s faces may indicate such traits such as trustworthiness, social dominance and aggression. The latter trait seems to be determined by the level of the hormone testosterone during puberty, which affects the ratio between the height and width of the face – aggressive individuals are found to have wider faces.

Two news articles came out recently which support the notion that facial appearance is connected to either personality type or intelligence. In “The Face of Leadership” on Psychology Today, we learn that men with wide faces are perceived as stronger leaders than men with narrow faces. Christopher Peterson writes:

A “gee whiz” study was recently described by Elaine Wong, Margaret Ormiston, and Michael Haselhun (2011). These researchers were able to predict the financial success of Fortune 500 companies from the facial width-to-height ratio (WHR) of the CEO. That is, how wide was the CEO’s face relative to how long it was? These researchers limited their analyses to male CEOs, and they assessed WHR from stock photos by measuring facial width from cheek-to-cheek and facial height from brow to upper lip.

Then they correlated the ratio with the return on assets of the company, controlling for industry standards as well as its financial past performance.

Wider faces predicted better performance, especially for companies judged to have low cognitive complexity in their communication and decision styles, as assessed from content analyses of a company’s letters to shareholders. Lower cognitive complexity companies frame issues in black-and-white terms, whereas higher cognitive complexity companies convey issues in multidimensional and nuanced terms.

via Psychology Today.

Presumably the article’s author remarks that the study is “gee whiz” because the notion that a classical and medieval wisdom tradition which has been regarded as superstitious and debunked for most of the twentieth century may have now just been given fresh scientific support. To be clear, the premise of the Wong/Ormiston/Haselhun research was based on a preexisting line of scientific research into facial structure, and probably were not inspired as an attempt to confirm the works of Aristotle or Zopyrus.

Slate Magazine explains that people are able to recognize intelligence by looking at a headshot more often than you would expect if the link between intelligence and appearance were merely random:

The idea that an ugly face might hide a subtle mind has attracted scientific inquiries for many years. At first, scientists wanted to know whether it was possible to read someone’s intelligence from the shape of his face. In 1918, a researcher in Ohio showed a dozen photographic portraits of well-dressed children to a group of physicians and teachers, and asked the adults to rank the kids from smartest to dumbest. A couple of years later, a Pittsburgh psychologist ran a similar experiment using headshots of 69 employees from a department store. In both studies, seemingly naive guesses were compared to actual test scores, and turned out to be accurate more often than not.

Many such studies followed, and with consistent results: You can learn something about how smart someone is just by looking at a picture. But scientists couldn’t figure out where that information might have been hiding in the photographs. The Ohio researcher said that some of his subjects were “greatly influenced by the pleasant appearance or smile, but for some the smile denotes intelligence and for others it denotes feeble-mindedness.” The author of the follow-up in Pittsburgh wondered if the secret of intelligence might not be lurking in “the lustre of the eye.”

via Slate Magazine.

Wasn’t it another ancient Greek, Plato, who was convinced of the esoteric unity of Truth and Beauty? There does seem to be some empirical connection between physical attractiveness and intelligence, beyond what would be anticipated by dumb luck. And yet without the recent research projects such as described by Slate, who would have dared to investigate a notion that has been discredited by mainstream thinkers for centuries?

Scientific research into physiognomy and other sources of traditional wisdom can be valuable in assessing the nuggets of disregarded truth that may have been thrown aside with the rush of modernity to annihilate oppressive authorities. And where all this research might lead, and how it can be applied to benefit in real life is very much a topic open to debate and experimentation.

What an Integral perspective offers is the ability to frame the research in terms of forming a postmodern and evolutionary self and worldview. An evolutionary worldview tells us that beliefs generally evolve in stages from pre-rational to rational to trans-rational, and non-rational beliefs must be carefully parsed to discriminate between irrational or ego-centric (pre-) and genuinely spiritual or world/cosmo-centric (trans-). We do not fallaciously confuse the pre- with the trans-, but we are open to truth wherever it appears, even if it seems odd.

In the words of socionics theorist H.C. Linguere, “The body never lies.”

In the words of socionics theorist H.C. Linguere, “The body never lies.”

About Joe Perez

Joe Perez is a Seattle-based author, blogger, poet, and language creator. He is an Honors graduate of Harvard University and has earned a Certificate in Integral Leadership from Pacific Integral. His most recent work is The Kalendar, a philosophical-poetic fantasy adventure epic forthcoming in the fall of 2015. [Full Bio].

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