Are wide male faces really a predictor of unethical behavior?S

The wider a man's face is, the more likely he is to deceive others and cheat to get ahead...or so a new study claims. Is this just the new phrenology, or could there be something to the idea?

Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let's look at the actual study. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee assembled 192 business school students, 115 of which were men and 77 of which were women. They were then asked to take part in simulated negotiations in which half were buyers and half were sellers of a piece of real estate. The sellers were told not to sell the property unless they were sure it wouldn't be used commercially, while the buyers were told that that's exactly how the real estate would be used.

Of course, the only way to complete a transaction was for one of the two parties to disobey their instructions, and the most obvious way was for the buyers to lie about how they planned to use the land. Among the men, the researchers found that those with wider faces were three times as likely to lie as their narrow-faced peers. Facial width was not a determinant of willingness to lie among the women.

The researchers also ran a second experiment in which they had 103 students from one class enter a lottery. The students would roll a pair of dice to see how many spots each would have in the lottery, but each was allowed to lie about just what number they got. Among the 50 men in the class, the broad-faced ones inflated their totals by 18.6%, while the narrow-faced men only overstated by just two percent.

What's more, the researchers asked the participants eight questions that assessed how powerful they felt. The broad-faced men consistently reported the greatest feelings of power, which has previously been linked with an increased propensity for unethical behavior.

So then, what's going on here? The simple (and, importantly, oversimplified) statement "broad-faced men are unethical" 0 which I'm guessing is how this study will be widely misinterpreted - seems like a load of pseudoscientific hogwash, recalling the 19th century practice of phrenology, in which measurements of different areas of the human skull were meant to be able to reveal a person's entire personality. But that's not what's being said here.

What this research suggests is that, in males, there is a correlation between an increased chance of engaging in unethical behavior and a broader face. Now, people's facial width obviously doesn't magically make them more likely to behave unethical, so what causes a broader face - and, by extension, might be responsible for this unethical behavior? Since we're talking just about males here, there's an obvious culprit: testosterone.

Heightened testosterone levels are linked with increased aggressiveness and a greater willingness to break rules, and it's also linked with a number of physical characteristics like a larger frame and, yes, a broader face. The link might be a straightforward chemical one - the hormone itself causes the increased psychology volatility. There might also be a social learning component, in which people are subconsciously conditioned to treat broad-faced men with deference and those men themselves learn that they can get away with acting more unethically than others.

However, the answer might be a bit more subtle and tied into our evolutionary history - because larger men were likely to be dominant in ancient times, they could act more purely in their own self-interest than smaller men, who would need to be more "civilized" as a matter of survival. Therefore, aggression might be selected for in men with higher testosterone counts, while a more compliant nature would be favored in those with lower counts. Quite possibly, it's a combination of all three explanations.

Whatever the exact cause, higher testosterone levels correlate significantly with the behavioral and physical characteristics examined in this study. We run into trouble, however, when we try to link broad faces and unethical behavior directly, as though the presence of one can reliably predict the other. (For whatever reason, humans have an ongoing fascination with ways to determine otherwise hidden details about people just by looking at them.)

But it obviously isn't actually possible to look at someone's face, assess its width, and then determine how ethical they are, and the actual correlation between these two isn't particularly strong anyway. Researcher Michael Haselhuhn explains:

"While our findings provide compelling evidence that men's facial structure is a reliable physical cue of the likelihood of engaging in ethically questionable behavior, we stress that it is but one of many factors that affect unethical judgment and action. The majority - 60 percent - of men with relatively wide faces did not engage in deceptive behavior.

"We caution individuals to not consider men's facial structure to the exclusion of all factors. Ethics research has shown that even small situational factors, such as whether it is light or dark in a room, can have a major impact on ethical judgment. In our studies, we controlled the environment to a large extent, and men were able to lie and cheat nearly anonymously; in other settings, where either men are held accountable for their actions, or when they find themselves in an organization that cultivates an honest work environment, the effects of men's facial structure will likely be mitigated to a certain degree."

According to Haselhuhn, facial width only "explains less than 10 percent of the variance in how people behave." So then, what we have here is a hormonal variation, which in turn are strongly correlated with behavioral and physical characteristics, and those characteristics can in turn be correlated as well, though to a much weaker extent. Personally, I can cautiously get on board with all that.

But Haselhuhn seems to take his argument to much shakier territory with comments like this one, in which he looks at historical examples of people with broad faces, or high width-to-height ratios (WHRs):

"Historical examples of men falling into this general range are John F. Kennedy (2.15), Richard Nixon (2.02), and Ken Lay (1.86). [Bill Clinton (2.07) and John Edwards (2.38)] have notably been caught in ethically-compromising positions. Men with low WHRs, such as John Lennon (1.63) tend to have longer rather than narrower faces. George 'I cannot tell a lie' Washington (1.75) and William Shakespeare (1.44) also have low WHR's, though it is difficult to gather precise measurements from painted portraits."

If nothing else, even granting that last caveat, I'm not at all sure how we can calculate Shakespeare's WHR with any sort of precision, considering historians still haven't even reached a consensus on which portrait, if any, is an accurate depiction of the man. But more to the point, I'm very skeptical of what purpose these numbers serve.

Sure, most could probably agree than Richard Nixon, John Edwards, Bill Clinton, and late Enron chairman Ken Lay engaged in unethical behavior. (I'm not so sure you could reach a consensus on John F. Kennedy, but an argument can at least be made.) But this feels like cherry picking, in which we're only presented with examples that confirm the initial theory.

Maybe if you took all forty-three presidents and ranked them in terms of their WHR's and then compared that list with historians' general assessments of their trustworthiness, then maybe...maybe...you might have something compelling. But as it stands? Just listing the WHRs for Nixon, Clinton, and JFK seems dangerously close to displaying a confirmation bias, and this probably isn't the best way to get people to understand what the study is actually saying.

Besides, why bother just looking at Ken Lay as an example of a broad-faced businessperson when you could look at a relatively larger data set - say, all the Fortune 500 CEOs? As it happens, Haselhuhn did precisely that, and there was a correlation between broad faces and business performance. It just wasn't a particularly negative one:

"In other research, we have found that the facial structure of Fortune 500 CEOs predicts firm financial performance, such that CEOs with relatively wider faces achieve greater financial success for their firm. We believe that men's facial structure should be used as one important cue in detecting liars and cheaters, but caution should be taken in automatically labeling relatively wide-faced men as bad seeds."

So then, what are we left with? The basic science of all this seems sound, and it's a good reminder that genetics do affect behavior, albeit in ways that are generally too subtle to be used as any sort of predictor of individual behavior. But as for reinterpreting all history by measuring the WHRs of famous men...well, that seems like it belongs in the same dustbin as phrenology.

Read the full scientific article in Proceedings of the Royal Society B [via Discovery News and LiveScience]

Image by Elena Ray/Shutterstock