Why it's hard not to stare at facial deformities

On Wired Science, DeAnne Musolf writes about the neurological basis for staring at facial deformities or irregularities:
When someone unfamiliar approaches you in the aisle of a grocery store, a glance at his face and its expression helps your brain to sort that person into one of two broad categories: safe or potentially unsafe. The amygdala (the brain area associated with judgment) depends upon the emotion conveyed by the person's facial features to make that crucial call. Is he happy? Angry? Irritated?

To decide, your eyes sweep over the person's face, retrieving only parts, mainly just his nose and eyes. Your brain will then try to assemble those pieces into a configuration that you know something about.

When the pieces you supply match nothing in the gallery of known facial expressions, when you encounter a person whose nose, mouth or eyes are distorted in a way you have never encountered before, you instinctively lock on. Your gaze remains riveted, and your brain stays tuned for further information.

Why We Stare, Even When We Don't Want To

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  1. primates have challenge-release facial codes. If the basic structure is lacking, the initial arousal (fight/groom/sex/run/defer)gets caught without resolution. I’m sure people with unrepaired facial deformities quickly learn other basic primate body language cues to put others at ease,or at least get them past the initial challenge phase.

  2. I’ve always been really uncomfortable around people wearing sunglasses (especially big, mirrored ones), quite probably for the same reason. I’m big on eye contact, and mirrored shades always make me fear that the person I’m talking to has fallen asleep, or is glaring at me, etc.

  3. I always thought that if I ever became disfigured, I’d get a whole bunch of t-shirts printed that said “It’s Okay to Stare.” Not because I’d enjoy the staring*, I’m sure, but because you’d have to get past it to move on to anything else.

    *(I once wore a prosthetic piece on my face for Halloween that looked like a gorey facial injury, and then went out in the Castro. The stares I got from every stranger i made eye contact with as I moved through the crowd was quite discomforting, even though shock had been the whole point)

  4. Ripley’s Believe It or Not now sells shirts that read:

    ‘It’s rude not to stare.’

    I have always been a proponent of staring, I correct parents when they admonish their kids not to stare at me or anything else. Staring is essentially a compliment, it is tacitly saying that whatever is being stared at is interesting. And while I understand the discomfort it causes some people (because they become self conscious and don’t recognize the compliment) it can help lead to a loss of self consciousness when you eventually stop caring about the stares. Tangentally interesting effect – I have had friends get uncomfortable going out with me because they ‘feel’ the stares of people looking at the green guy (me). Whereas I feel completely free with people staring at me.

  5. Given the hypothesis that people must look at a disfigured face for longer in order to understand the facial features I would say that eye-movement tracking studies would be needed to show that people are staring at relevant facial features such as eyes, nose etc.

    Personally I only think that is part of the issue. The other large part being that people with disfigurements can look scary. How did they get disfigured? Does it increase your chance of being disfigured if you hang out in their vicinity? Novelty is another reason – we look at novel objects for longer before we habituate to them. Also, we are likely to be wary of people not like us since we want our genes to be passed on with people that look like us. Just a few things I can think of.

  6. Hey, just wanted to point out that the amygdala is not the area for ‘judgement’. The amygdala is involved in base level emotional processing, generally fear and pain.

    I think Musolf’s intention was to describe where the very low level reactions come from, but judgments and decision making processes happen elsewhere.

    Just wanted to clear up potential misunderstandings

  7. This is really interesting. So staring is not really rude huh? It is just a manifestation of a primal survival instinct which processes facial features as signal for friendship or aggression. Any theories on why guys stare at big breasts as well? That one will truly be handy with the ladies. Lol.

  8. > So staring is not really rude huh?

    Unfortunately, knowing there’s a rational reason for some behavior doesn’t change your emotional response to it one bit.

    I end up on the receiving end of that, since I’ve got ADD I may often be unable to listen to people – no matter how much I want to.

    I haven’t noticed any difference in annoyance between people who are well aware of my ADD and people who aren’t. (rather, it just depends on whether you’re the kind of person that gets annoyed with it or not).

    Some (most) people don’t like being stared at.. so yeah, it’d be polite to suppress it as best you can.

  9. I wonder how people who are “face blind” (unable to recognize or interpret facial expressions) would react. Would they be more likely or less likely to state?

  10. To claim that something is not rude/wrong just because it has some evolutionary explanation (ignoring for the sake of argument whether or not the explanation is just hand-waving) is a classic example of the naturalistic fallacy. Society is all about making customs and laws that go against instincts.

  11. My daughter has mild to moderate autism. The amygdala is one of the regions suspected to be involved in the syndrome. She’s not face blind, but is kind of disinterested in people in general. She requests sorting of all animal life (and many other objects) into two categories:
    Things that will give you a boo-boo
    (Known boo-boo agents include jellyfish, bees, toadstools and fire)
    and
    Things that won’t give you a boo-boo.
    (Known safe objects are fish, butterflies, flowers, dinosaurs, earthworms and grasshoppers)

    People with very obvious injuries/disfigurement
    are described as “having a boo-boo”, but she has no fear or special interest. She would probably enjoy meeting Lizardman, as she enjoys dress-up and be jealous of his face painting, as her favorite color is green. During halloween, she wandered around the party store and diagnosed a zombie mask as suffering from boo-boo, but found it and similar “scary” masks uninteresting. Assessing emotions of others is generally hard for her and she has relatively little empathy in general.

    When I see someone with an obvious disfigurement, I try to keep a friendly/cheerful but not intrusive expression on my face, as I’m aware they might not get a lot of smiles from strangers. Especially kids, the world should smile for all kids.

  12. #7:

    Given the hypothesis that people must look at a disfigured face for longer in order to understand the facial features I would say that eye-movement tracking studies would be needed to show that people are staring at relevant facial features such as eyes, nose etc.

    I doubt they will, and I don’t think them staring at the deformities disproves the hypothesis.
    If a deformity is causing “static” in the facial recognition “circuits” so to speak, staring would be a natural part of error correction – trying to get that rather reflexive, automated part of the brain enough information that it can fully ID the persons face as an actual face, not a “face like object” like the front of a car or a power outlet, and not a “not-face-like-at-all object” like, I don’t know, an orange or a keyboard or something.

  13. Not sure the opposite extreme (quickly averting your eyes) is really any better.

    I remember passing a woman with a disfigured face in Germany; I only caught sight of her face for an instant, my brain registered “something way off about that” and I think fear took over and I quickly averted my gaze and looked off into the distance about 45 degrees away from her until she was past. Probably also latent memory of also being told “it’s not polite to stare”, etc.

    A casual glance like you would do with any other person is the goal, I guess, but I guess this article is trying to say that’s not the neurologically natural response.

  14. In this rare moment of candid seriousness, I’ll confess to you that I’ve grown up with a facial deformity. People hardly notice any more, but it was rough at times when I was a kid- the staring, the “What happened to your face?”s, kids looking at me like I’m frickin’ Frankenstein. I remember goofing with some kids, distorting my face and acting like a Frankenstein zombie and making little girls scream and run away. Good clean fun.
    I’m touched that you people are concerned about not offending these people, and I’ll tell you how you can avoid it:
    When we see you looking at us, give a faint smile and a tiny nod. That tiny gesture says “I accept you as a person”.
    Don’t avoid eye contact. Give us less than you give most others, but don’t talk to us while facing away. It makes us feel too disgusting to look at.
    The highest compliment you can pay us is to act like you didn’t even notice. Folks, we just want, nay yearn, to be normal people. Treat us just like your other friends. Tease us, but about something else- something normal. We are, in most ways, normal.

  15. Liazardman, I don’t know why you’re green (unusual sentence), but if it’s something you do/have done intentionally to express yourself, I’m thinking that must be different than a facial deformity, right? A lot of people look very different than they would if given a choice, and aren’t seeking that kind of attention.

    Of course, I never really know what to do, myself. I’ve heard lots of contradictory advice from the visually strange, so apparently merely being deformed in some way does not give you unlimited insight into the psychologies of everyone else who is deformed. Which shouldn’t really be surprising. Personally I just try to be casual and pretend not to notice at first, but might ask about it once “friendly aquaintance” level is reached, depending on my feel for the particular person.

  16. Trofseeker, that actually is so simple, and makes so much sense that is makes me wonder why I just don’t automatically think to do what you have said. I think that I’ve also grown up with the mantra of avoidance to try to avert my eyes quickly, which was taught by parents because it’s “rude to stare”… but I always knew it was rude to avert as well, but it became instinctive reaction due to what I was taught in youth.

    I always worry about making someone feel bad or offending them, and it always bothered me that I never knew how to handle myself in such a situation. So thank you for stating it so matter of factly. I know everyone may each have individual preferences in their situation, but using that as a base is very helpful. Thank you.

    On a side note, I’m one of hose people who usually prefer to gravitate towards someone in the room who is somewhat outside the norm because I find those people the most interesting.

  17. I don’t know that I share the conclusions that this article gives. I mean, do we all feel the urge to stare at people wearing ski masks or with large amounts of facial hair?

    Their expression is obscured which is just as mystifying as deformed and should result in the same urge to stare if we are actually trying to derive the safeness factor.

  18. Thanks, Rayven.
    When we see someone who is significantly deformed, damaged or crippled, it’s easy to assume that they’re mentally deficient in some way. For God’s sake, don’t talk to them like they’re stupid, or five years old! What an insult! Talk to them like you do to your close friends. Even if they are mentally deficient, they won’t be insulted.

    You might quietly offer to push their wheelchair or help in some small way, but in the many times I’ve offered, they always declined.
    If you’re going to have a conversation with someone in a wheelchair, sit down. Put yourself on the same level, rather than hovering above them.
    Probably the most powerful statement you can make, and maybe this goes for everyone, is the tiny smile and ‘howdy’ nod. That says “I like you and I accept you.” Powerful stuff.

    1. Next let’s figure out why we talk really loudly to people don’t speak our language.

  19. If something or somebody looks unusual, I generally examine it or her without trying to hide what I’m doing. If a person notices I smile to convey my own harmlessness. If a person takes offense I apologize (quite sincerely, I understand some people are more sensitive to attention than others) and if a person is willing to talk about their visually unusual feature(s) I chat with them about it. I’ve learned a lot about artificial arms, racing wheelchairs, hare-lips, multiple sclerosis, and tattoos sort of in passing, as it were. I’m curious by nature.

    Troof, I don’t necessarily “like and accept” people who are disfigured or whatever. Some people are dicks, and I’m not pretending a disfigured dick isn’t one, simply because he’s disfigured, sorry. Instead, I just give everybody the same chance to be likeable and acceptable, and I don’t require blind people to see or legless people to walk if you get my drift.

  20. Anon#23,
    Everybody I’ve met has redeeming value. I like that. Most folks can be a dick at times. I like that too.
    “…If a person notices, I smile to convey my own harmlessness.” Perfect. That’s all I’m asking- we don’t want them to feel like a deformity with a partial human attached. And, of course they can be dicks (or a female counterpart). They, of all people, have that right.
    Being a jerk brings its own punishment. People avoid you, leave you out of plans, talk behind your back, and short-change you at every turn.
    I like to assume that everyone is bitchin’ in their own way, because they are.

  21. you can either stare, which the disfigured person expects anyways, or you can make an effort to NOT stare, which is really just as off putting as staring is unless you’re REALLY good at it. its not that being disfigured sucks because people will stare at you – it sucks because you’re disfigured, plain and simple. and besides, disfigured people stare at other disfigured people – proving that deep down inside, we’re all the same.

  22. Jaoquin Phoenix has a hairlip. Cleft Pallette to those of you easily offended. It catches my eye. Makeup can’t hide it, the camera can’t hide it, it’s observable and distracting. Robert DeNiro has a great big mole on the side of his face. He’s had it in every movie and that thing has distracted me in every movie I’ve watched that he’s been in. Our current president has “something Growing on” the side of his nose.

    Unnatural lumps and growths distract me. At least after reading this article I don’t feel so bad, maybe it’s a trait I inherited.

    With everything going to High Definition, I hope casting directors inherited the same trait!

    -Myco-

  23. palâ‹…ette
      /ˈpælɪt/ Show Spelled Pronunciation [pal-it] Show IPA
    –noun
    1. a thin and usually oval or oblong board or tablet with a thumb hole at one end, used by painters for holding and mixing colors.
    2. any other flat surface used by a painter for this purpose.
    3. the set of colors on such a board or surface.
    4. the range of colors used by a particular artist.
    5. the variety of techniques or range of any art: a lush but uneven musical palette.
    6. the complete range of colors made available by a computer graphics card, from which a user or program may choose those to be displayed.
    7. (in ancient Egyptian art) a somewhat flattish slate object of various shapes, carved with commemorative scenes or motifs or, esp. in the smaller pieces, containing a recessed area probably for holding eye makeup and often used as a votive offering.
    8. Also, pallette. Armor. a small plate defending the front of the armpit when the arm is lifted; gusset.
    Origin:
    1615–25; < F, MF < It paletta, dim. of pala shovel < L pāla; see -ette

  24. palâ‹…ate
      /ˈpælɪt/ Show Spelled Pronunciation [pal-it] Show IPA
    –noun
    1. Anatomy. the roof of the mouth, consisting of an anterior bony portion (hard palate) and a posterior muscular portion (soft palate) that separate the oral cavity from the nasal cavity.
    2. the sense of taste: a dinner to delight the palate.
    3. intellectual or aesthetic taste; mental appreciation.
    Origin:
    1350–1400; ME palat < L palātum roof of the mouth Related forms: pal⋅ate⋅less, adjective pal⋅ate⋅like, adjective Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2009.

  25. Cleft lip (cheiloschisis) and cleft palate (palatoschisis) (colloquially known as harelip), which can also occur together as cleft lip and palate, are variations of a type of clefting congenital deformity caused by abnormal facial development during gestation. Note that harelip is now considered as a derogatory term. A cleft is a fissure or opening—a gap. It is the non-fusion of the body’s natural structures that form before birth.

    Clefts can also affect other parts of the face, such as the eyes, ears, nose, cheeks and forehead. In 1976, Dr. Paul Tessier described fifteen lines of cleft. These craniofacial clefts are rare and are frequently described as Tessier clefts using the numerical locator devised by Dr. Tessier.[1]

    A cleft lip or palate can be successfully treated with surgery soon after birth. Cleft lips or palates occur in somewhere between one in 600-800 births.

  26. Great post, quite interesting. It makes sense that your brain would automatically categorize people by facial features and other standards in order to interrupt/assume more about them. I also agree with the above comment that it might be just as bad to avert your eyes quickly signaling that you are well aware that something is not right. Either way, the reactions are understandable but should be handled with a certain amount of grace.

    My childhood friend had a cleft lip/palate and would get stared at constantly (mostly by kids who hadn’t learned manners). Usually people go out of their way to fix these things because obviously they don’t want people to focus on that instead of who they are. Now, not only has her cleft lip been corrected with surgery, no one can even tell it was ever there. She actually started donating her time to: http://www.operationsmile.org/, in order to help other children with similar facial deformities. Because, as science has proven again and again, no matter how polite we are, sometimes you just can’t help but stare or categorize people based on facial irregularities.

  27. It is nice to know that most people commenting are actually thinking of the “odd” persons feelings. I had a terrible auto accident and had my face torn off. It could not be put back quite right. No bone structure at all from the eyes down. Docs can only do so much. Most of all I would just like to be treated normal. Just a nod, a friendly hello or hows your day. Actually children treat me better than most adults. It is a shame that most people judge someone on what their hide looks like.

  28. As someone who has recently been facially disfigured due to medical negligence, I’d disagree with the “friendly nod” approach.
    I don’t want to be patronised by a “nodding dog” approach any more than I want to be pointed at or stared at.
    I liked being able to move around anonymously and one of the really depressing things about this is how difficult that is now.
    People who stare and especially those who comment are almost invariably unattractive low-life, so I can’t help thinking that such behaviour is connected with people at the bottom of life’s pile wanting to feel better by bitching at someone else.
    Just treat facially deformed people the same way as you would others, and if you want to stare, comment or avert your eyes, then just accept that you are an ill-mannered troll.

  29. One of the glorious things about being human is that we have the capacity to critique, overcome, and revision anything that we might consider “natural” about ourselves. I don’t really care if some part of my brain functions to sort people out in a certain way; as a human being, I have the free will to choose how I interact with others, and have chosen to avoid being a jerk as much as possible. Imagine that????

  30. I grew up with a cleft lip and palate. In my experience there is no “right way” to greet a facially different or disfigured person anymore than anybody else.
    “Acting natural” would be great, but awkward moments do happen. It’s taken me some time to realize I can be just as awkward around someone who has some other difference as anyone else could be around me.

    I think there are some automatic reactions to a facial difference based on the brain’s customary facial recognition process, but culture is the stronger factor in determining how those impulses are played out. For example, in some cultures female breasts are an everyday sight and nobody thinks twice about seeing a woman out going about her business topless. That doesn’t necessarily mean that there aren’t some subconscious connotations brought up in the eyes of those who see. They’ve just been conditioned differently.

    “Acting natural” and communicating acceptance are great ideals to shoot for, but I wouldn’t be too concerned about nailing the right way to act. If you chance to stare too long or jerk your gaze the other way or come off as patronizing, you can just say hello and acknowledge them inconversation. Or don’t. It’s a pretty cruel world out there and people who look different do have to grow some skin, especially for dealing with those people who will intentionally try to demean them. There are no psychological self-defense courses that I know of to prepare one for such encounters, which is a shame because the fear of such can cast a shadow of fear over the bulk of public contact, even if the occurence of actually malicious people can be rather rare.

    The real problem is that the cruel-minded people feel vindicated by the culture we live in, which places ever-escalating value on the appearance of immortality. The stigma against facial differences is the same stigma against disease, old age and death. No one wants to admit that death and decay are just the other side of the coin of life and growth.

    This is what really deserves attention, beyond damage-control strategies for the stigma that does exist. We need to reevaluate how it is that our culture so readily condones this trite identification of the spirit with the shell it temporarily inhabits. Because (and this is just one, but as damning a symptom as any) that leads to the writing off of anyone who looks different as waste, which is a terrible misevaluation of a human’s worth and a crime against the human spirit. Instead of saddling us with self-hate and inhibitions, society should be interested in what we have to say. Of course it is up to us to say it, but we can’t do it without all the rest. So the next time you see a person with a facial difference, think of human diversity, adaptability, and the safety net of medical science and farewell rites waiting for you when you or any of those you care about will need it.

  31. Please don’t stare at others with facial disfigurement. There are many people out there, afraid to leave the house from the constant stares people give, intentionally or otherwise.
    Please add Changing Faces to your twitter, and help promote face equality: http://twitter.com/faceequality

    Cheers

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