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The return of phrenology?

Posted by Christopher Shea  October 21, 2009 11:31 AM

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An image from the facial-width study. Test subjects did not see the white lines or descriptive captions

Psychologists used to think that by examining a person's head shape or facial structure, you could get a sense of that person's basic behavioral tendencies (not to mention intelligence). Not so coincidentally, the supposedly suspect head types tended to belong to despised minority groups, and that body of work was subsequently discredited.

Or so one thought, until coming across the latest issue of Psychological Science. It includes an article by researchers at Canada's Brock University with a back-to-the-future title: "Facial Structure Is a Reliable Cue of Aggressive Behavior."

The psychologists made use of facial photographs of 37 men whose tendencies toward aggression had been evaluated by psychologists. The width-to-height ratio of their faces had also been carefully calibrated, and the squatter-faced among them scored higher on the aggression tests.

The psychologists then flashed black-and-white versions of the photographs in front of test subjects and asked them to answer the question "How aggressive would this person be if provoked?" on a one-to-seven scale. To keep racial stereotypes from creeping in, the faces were limited to those of white men. Hirsute stereotypes, too: no beards or mustaches.

The observers identified the men with broader faces as the most likely to be aggressive, and their scores closely correlated with the first-hand psychological measures of aggression.

So is there an aggressive head type? Maybe, say the researchers, but they make a cautionary observation about cause and effect: most people, when they are angry, furrow their brows and grimace (thereby "flattening" their faces). It is possible, then, that people with naturally flat faces are unwittingly signaling aggressiveness, which, in a vicious circle, would then lead people to act aggressively toward them (pre-emptively, so to speak). And that, in turn, would train the flat-faced to be aggressive from the start.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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