Morph your personality

I recently attended the annual meeting of the Experimental Psychology Society in London and equipped with my PAA (personal analogue assistant, i.e. paper + pencil) got busy sucking up what was said. This is the first of a few posts looking at some of the new research presented there. Since much of this is genuinely new, it won’t have jumped through all the hoops normally traversed by science printed in a journal or re-reported in the media. But it’s sound stuff from respected researchers, and I figure all of you are as eager as me to get the news before it’s news. Right? Today I’ll be working from a talk given by Ian Penton-Voak called “Personality dimensions in the social face”. I hope you’ll understand the title I’ve given presently.

Stereotyping is a big interest of social psychologists, and it’s long established that we make judgments about the personality of strangers based on their appearance. These judgments are reliable – that is to say, that people tend to agree about what personality a face represents, at a level higher than chance would allow. An interesting issue with these kinds of phenomena is how they get started: is there a ‘kernel of truth’ that tipped judgments one way or the other, resulting in the far more sweeping and gross generalisations that now exist? We should bear in mind that in previous times, the idea that elements of personality persist in the face wasn’t just a scientific question, it was a presupposition: The art of physiognomy, or reading faces, was employed as far back as the ancient Greeks, as recently as Schopenhauer (see here for some of his thoughts on the issue) and has been popular between the two. In the present day, people still attribute the same kinds of traits to the same faces, and perhaps more surprising, they explicitly believe that the appearance of the face reveals personality.

However, it is up to the research to show that this reliability among viewers of a face has any correspondence to the genuine trait exhibited. I should note that one doesn’t need to be a hardline nativist (someone certain that traits are innate, genetically determined and fairly resistant to change) to consider this hypothesis. Activity affects physiology, so in principle personality, by affecting your activities, could affect how you look. And how you look may shape your personality. So is there anything to this? A kernel of truth, a whole lot of truth, or no truth to speak of?

Previous research showed that people were better at chance at at least some of the personality judgments they made about faces. However this was marred by the common use of full-face photographs, which provide cues such as haircuts, jewellery and the like. Even a cropped photo may contain scars and other unique markers. This also doesn’t tell you very much about whether there are types of face that correspond to types of personality.

Penton-Voak’s work addressed this using interesting methods and providing exciting results. The first part of the method was fairly standard: they took 300 students and photographed their faces with neutral expressions, and asked them to complete a 40-item questionnaire which was designed to tap into the 5 factors of personality. Then, 100 participants rated the faces on each characteristic – e.g. agreeableness – one at a time. As expected, these rating were reliable. Also, they correlated with some of the questionnaire measures: Extraversion, and also male Neuroticism and Openness to expression.

So far, so expected. Here comes the geek bit: concentrate. For each personality factor, Penton-Voak took the faces of the people who rated themselves as highest on that factor (the top ten percent) and used them to create a personality composite. This was achieved by overlaying each face, preserving their commonalities but gradually smoothing out the differences to arrive at some kind of ‘platonic ideal’ of the face for that factor. The same was done with the bottom 10 percent on each scale. Would candidates just presented with this averaged information still be able to discern which was the agreeable and which the unagreeable ideal?

Turns out they could, for the following dimensions: Agreeableness, Extraversion, and Neuroticism. So, if anything, the composites stripped of individual social cues such as distinctive haircuts, allowed better perception of the personality trait that underlay them. Penton-Voak suggests that this may be because if the face does carry personality information, a single face is carrying information from multiple, independent sources (as there are proposed to be 5 independent personality measures) and this muddies the waters, as we find it difficult to ignore information and tend to incorporate it into our judgments, even when it isn’t helping.

They also made another kind of composite: the product of those faces high or lowly rated on a dimension by the viewers. It would seem trivial to say that these composites continued to be rated as high or low on the scale, just as their components were, but remember that this suggests that some component of personality stereotyping has roots in across-face averages, rather than picking and operating on idiosyncracies. Moreover, using a form of statistical investigation termed discriminant analysis, they revealed that underlying those judgments made upon women was a reliance on their level of perceived attractiveness – their agreement was based not on a shared impression of what constitutes agreeableness in a female face, but a shared supposition that attractive faces are more agreeable. This is termed a halo effect – where perception of one feature determines another one.

In what for me is the most exciting aspect of the research, Penton-Voak took this yet further. If these composites really were ideals, then it should be possible to apply them to fresh data and in effect, produce a transformation along that dimension. He took his strongest candidates – the high and low Agreeableness composites – and applied them to new faces, morphing them towards those common aspects the composite held. These faces, both unknown and famous, were then rated on all dimensions. As hoped for, those morphed towards the high-Agreeable composite were judged more agreeable, and those towards the low judged less. But the most impressive finding was that there was no effect of the morphing on any of the other personality dimensions – they were not rated as more or less extraverted, neurotic etc. It was totally specific to one – in effect, isolating the ‘agreeableness’ transformation.

This seems compelling evidence that this method has locked on to a proto-face structure that communicates information about one personality dimension only, and promises a method of interrogating whether multiple personality dimensions can be communicated this way, and whether they map onto the classic Big-5 measures. Penton-Voak thinks not – not all the distinctive personality differences that are researched in people will be coded in any sense in the face – but thinks he can find at least one or two more using this method. It also holds out the possibility that, in images at least, we may be able to morph our personality.

I can’t resist spelling out the applications of this kind of work in true Mind Hacks fashion…actually, I’ll let Ian do it for me:

…the computer graphic faces generated by this project will be useful in an applied setting, as they will allow controlled alterations of perceived personality in faces. The use of computer generated characters (avatars) that successfully elicit personality judgements of the designer‚Äôs (or user‚Äôs) choosing may increase the usability of, and satisfaction with, computer interfaces. With the increasing use of avatars in many forms of human computer interaction, the current project has value as a first step towards the principled use of facial characteristics in computer graphic avatar design…

As a coda, I should add that the possibility I held out above, that it’s personality that is presently morphing our faces is stronger than mere conjecture; studies from the 80s show that couples grow more alike over time in physical appearance, and it’s no great step to say that those that smile together wrinkle together in the same way.

6 thoughts on “Morph your personality”

  1. I believe the item you refer to as a PAA is more properly called a PAD, a Personal Analog Device. Please don’t make this mistake again…

  2. Cool Mind Hacks stories

    Here is one about your brain acting on information, in this case sensing fear in eyes, with ultra-fast response times.
    And this other story about stereotyping — making judgments about the personality of strangers based on their appearance. Apparen…

  3. It’s also the Hipster PDA according to some folk. Give it a few years for the technology to become established and the market will thin out, and we’ll just be left with the market leader. Until someone steps in with an anti-monopoly suit. They’ve got to stop bundling that pencil with the pad….

  4. The personality research you mention above is very dated, it has been around (in simplified form) for over 50 years. Unfortuately some fields of science get stuck in their own “local minima” and fail to move on. That is not to say that a good deal of valuable work has not been done there, it has, its just that it is now very old.
    The current state of the art is in neuroscience and computational neuroscience (as an analogy psychology is similar to looking at a server from the outside to determine how it works whereas neuroscience opens the lid and sticks measuring devices into the motherboard).
    As a point of interest, the work Ian is planning to do (graphical model that can display personality, age and gender consistant facial gestures) has already been done although published in the Artificial Intelligence field. You can find more information at . Disclaimer, this is my personal research.

  5. Hmm… Is your point that it’s long been settled that personality can be reliably found in the face ? As far as I can see, that isn’t so and recent reviews of the area* suggest the same thing. The issue may be old hat, but it isn’t resolved. An awful lot of things are old hat (I understand that some of those greeks were quite interested in the mental world) but that doesn’t mean that they’re not of continued interest.
    Perhaps you feel that the technology end of this is merely reinventing the wheel: the computation of a set of vectors along which faces can be transformed to have a psychophysical effect, delimited to a single personality factor. If so I’d be interested to hear of where it was done first.
    If you want to compare dicks between psychologists and neuroscientists thats absolutely fine by me. It’s a common enough game we play down my way, between the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience and the psychology dept up the road. It tends to end with the agreement that neuroscience is the new kid in town, with lots of exciting toys. But no matter how sharp the cutting edge, you need to know where you need to put the knife to be any use. To continue the analogy, at present a good deal of neuroscience is more Michael Myers than skilled surgeon. That’s why people curious about the mind and brain welcome research from all domains.
    Thanks for the link by the way. Unfortunately, I can’t find much details about any research in there, more a series of adverts for various products. It would be great to have some links to some published work on this.
    * see e.g. here

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