Background: From block buster movies, to Snow White and the Seven Dwarf's, characters with certain personality and mental traits are portrayed looking a certain way. For example, the clumsy one has big ears or the antagonist has dark hair and the protagonist has a strong jaw line. These characteristics seem to be pretty consistent over time and in different types of media.

Do facial/body features shape the brain or does the brain shape the body or are they completely separate with no connection?

Question: Is there a correlation between facial features and personality?


Inheritability of facial features

Let's start with the origin of specific facial features. Below is a table which shows averaged heritabilities for a range of facial quantitative traits from a large number of studies, from the review by Kohn (1991):

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where $h^2$ is the narrow-sense heritability. You can clearly see that heritability in majority of the features is well above 0.5, in fact the overall mean from all the features is 0.72 (with standard deviation 0.18). To put it in the context, this review show that facial features are typically more heritable than behavioral traits (usually less then 0.50), but less heritable than height (0.8-0.9). At this point we can conclude that a substantial part of the variability in facial features can be explained by the inheritance (i.e. genetic factors).

Cognitive aspects of physiognomy

As @Xurtio pointed out, physiognomy gained and lost popularity several times in history. In general, modern science is sceptical towards traditional approach to physiognomy (i.e. specific facial features correlate with objective personality traits). However, there is a strong interest in attribution of personality traits to specific facial features. Hassin and Trope (2000) conducted a number of experiments examining the cognitive aspects of physiognomy. In examining "reading from faces" authors demonstrated that physiognomic information changes the interpretation of verbal information. The more ambiguous this information is, the more perceivers use the face. Furthermore, even when asked to, participants were unable to ignore people's faces while simulating decisions regarding personnel selection, although they are quite sure that they are able to do so (Hassin and Trope, 2000). Finally, physiognomic information makes us highly overconfident about our judgments - our confidence in physiognomy-based judgments far exceeds the actual accuracy of these judgments.

We all know that face is powerful information channel that is used to communicate a broad spectrum of emotions, more or less universally across cultures (Ekman et al., 1971). We also have dedicated brain areas specialised in decoding facial information, for example Face Fusiform Area (FFA) that contributes to facial recognition (Sergent et al., 1992). It is therefore not surprising that we all attribute so much to the specific facial features. And that we are biased in making personality judgements based on facial features, as showed by Hassin and Trope (2000). As for the direct correlation between facial features and objective personality traits, there are no systematic empirical studies that support such links.


Kohn, L. A. P. (1991) The Role of Genetics in Craniofacial Morphology and Growth. Annual Review of Anthropology 20, 261-278.

Hassin, R., Trope, Y. (2000) Facing faces: Studies on the cognitive aspects of physiognomy. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78, 5, 837-852.

Ekman, P., & Friesen, W. V. (1971). Constants across cultures in the face and emotion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 17(2), 124–129.

Sergent, J., Ohta, S., MacDonald, B. (1992) Functional neuroanatomy of face and object processing. A positron emission tomography study. Brain 115, 1, 15–36.


Paul Ekman has shown definite links between emotions and facial expressions. A Google Scholar search for his name returns many many results.

Now, consider how muscles are physically formed; that is, the more we use muscles, the better defined (and usually either stronger or more effective) they become. Alternatively put, form follows function.

Put the two concepts together: over time, facial expressions create a muscular structure reflecting the most commonly created facial expressions. This would be true whether or not the expressions were emotionally-generated or self-generated (smiling because of joy or just self-creating a Duchenne smile).

So, partially the answer would appear to be yes; some degree of facial structure could be correlated with personality.

However, it's less certain whether or not other facial features correlate with personality. Non-modifiable structures such as bone structure and placement in particular.

Furthermore, one must consider the personality expectations others hold in regard to facial features (related to the study posted in the comments). If we expect someone to be a particular personality because of a particular characteristic, do we interpret and attribute their actions differently? Could we potentially affect another's actions based on these expectations? Over time do these social expectations, based on a person's physical appearance, alter that person's personality? To what degree?

I suspect that your question does not have one simple answer, and may not have the same answer depending on who you examine.

2:http://scholar.google.com/scholar?hl=en&q=paul+ekman 3:http://www.jappl.org/content/88/3/1127.full

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    $\begingroup$ it's called Physiognomy. It's gained and lost popularity several times in history. There's an excellent science-fiction novel called "The Physiognomy" based on the medievel version of the practice. Phrenology was a similar, less credible idea. $\endgroup$ – Keegan Keplinger Sep 13 '12 at 22:32
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    $\begingroup$ Agreed - on a whole it's bunk, but it also seems that some minor correlations may exist in particular cases. $\endgroup$ – BenCole Sep 13 '12 at 23:18
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    $\begingroup$ I didn't really intend to judge Physiognomy, just lay the terms out there for further research (Phrenology is another story.. it made particular now-falsified claims about local functionality being isolated in brain regions). On Physiognomy, The wiki says it's made a little bit of a comeback lately and I can intuit some rationality in the muscular use line of argument. So I withhold judgment for now. But yeah, definitely something to tread carefully with. $\endgroup$ – Keegan Keplinger Sep 14 '12 at 0:04

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