Slate's Dave Johns reports on the resurgence of the long-discredited pseudo-science of physiognomy ("infering personality traits from the face and body").
The new research suggests we are more skilled at "reading faces" than we knew. People are surprisingly adept at assessing sexual orientation from headshots. Five-year-olds can predict election outcomes based on photos of the candidates. We can even guess whether a face belongs to a Democrat or a Republican at a rate better than chance, according to a forthcoming study out of Princeton.
Now some of the "new physiognomists" are resurrecting an old claim: that you can gauge a man's penchant for aggression by the cut of his jib. Last fall University of California-Santa Barbara psychologist Aaron Sell reported that college students could accurately estimate the upper body strength of unfamiliar men after viewing their faces alone. (The men's necks were obscured.) The students did equally well with fellow undergraduates and men from South American indigenous groups–all of whom had had their strength measured using gym equipment. Interestingly, the toughest-looking undergrads also reported getting in the most fights. Another study by Sell suggests that such formidable men are more prone to use violence–or advocate military action–to resolve conflicts.
Many animals employ similar systems. Male orangutans grow fatty cheek pads that reflect group status. Lions with long, dark manes tend to rule the pride. From an evolutionary perspective, these advertisements may be a convenient way of saying, "Hey bro–btw, I can kick your ass" without having to go through the risk of combat.
(Phrenology poster from Bibliodyssey. "Signs of Character," Drawn and Published by R. Degranza Pease M.D. 1843)