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?


3 Answers 3


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 the 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 shows that facial features are typically more heritable than behavioural traits (usually less then 0.50), but less heritable than the 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 the 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).

Regarding the direct correlation between facial features and objective personality traits, there are no systematic empirical studies that support such links (as for September 2015).


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.

  • $\begingroup$ from my understanding, this answer discusses the inheritability of facial features and the perception/interpretation/judgement/altitude of the perceivers to the facial features of others, not the asked question $\endgroup$
    – Ooker
    Jul 14, 2019 at 2:31
  • $\begingroup$ @Ooker I write about the past concept of physiognomy that is closely associated with this question. I also gave a direct answer to the question in the last sentence of my reply. I appreciate your comment and I made this last sentence more prominent now (and dated). $\endgroup$ Jul 14, 2019 at 23:23
  • $\begingroup$ thanks for splitting that sentence to another paragraph. It's really helpful $\endgroup$
    – Ooker
    Jul 15, 2019 at 9:13

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.

  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Ekman
  2. http://scholar.google.com/scholar?hl=en&q=paul+ekman
  3. http://www.jappl.org/content/88/3/1127.full
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ 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. $\endgroup$ Sep 13, 2012 at 22:32
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Agreed - on a whole it's bunk, but it also seems that some minor correlations may exist in particular cases. $\endgroup$
    – BenCole
    Sep 13, 2012 at 23:18
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ 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. $\endgroup$ Sep 14, 2012 at 0:04

Here are some recent papers about the links between face and behavior:

  1. Kramer, R. S. S., King, J. E. & Ward, R. Identifying personality from the static, nonexpressive face in humans and chimpanzees: Evidence of a shared system for signaling personality. Evol. Hum. Behav. DOI: 10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2010.10.005 (2011).
  2. Walker, M. & Vetter, T. Changing the personality of a face: Perceived big two and big five personality factors modeled in real photographs. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 110, 609–624 (2016).
  3. Kramer, R. S. S. & Ward, R. Internal facial features are signals of personality and health. Q. J. Exp. Psychol. 63, 2273–2287 (2010).
  4. Lewis, G. J., Lefevre, C. E. & Bates, T. Facial width-to-height ratio predicts achievement drive in US presidents. Pers. Individ. Dif. 52, 855–857 (2012).
  5. Haselhuhn, M. P. & Wong, E. M. Bad to the bone: facial structure predicts unethical behaviour. Proc. R. Soc. B Biol. Sci. 279, 571 LP-576 (2012).
  6. Valentine, K. A., Li, N. P., Penke, L. & Perrett, D. I. Judging a Man by the Width of His Face: The Role of Facial Ratios and Dominance in Mate Choice at Speed-Dating Events. Psychol. Sci. 25, (2014).
  7. Carre, J. M. & McCormick, C. M. In your face: facial metrics predict aggressive behaviour in the laboratory and in varsity and professional hockey players. Proc. R. Soc. B Biol. Sci. 275, 2651–2656 (2008).
  8. Haselhuhn, M. P., Ormiston, M. E. & Wong, E. M. Men’s Facial Width-to-Height Ratio Predicts Aggression: A Meta-Analysis. PLoS One 10, e0122637 (2015).
  9. Lefevre, C. E., Etchells, P. J., Howell, E. C., Clark, A. P. & Penton-Voak, I. S. Facial width-to-height ratio predicts self-reported dominance and aggression in males and females, but a measure of masculinity does not. Biol. Lett. 10, (2014).
  10. Welker, K. M., Goetz, S. M. M. & Carré, J. M. Perceived and experimentally manipulated status moderates the relationship between facial structure and risk-taking. Evol. Hum. Behav. DOI: 10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2015.03.006 (2015).
  11. Hu, S. et al. Signatures of personality on dense 3D facial images. Sci. Rep. 7, 73 (2017).
  12. Borkenau, P., Brecke, S., Möttig, C. & Paelecke, M. Extraversion is accurately perceived after a 50-ms exposure to a face. J. Res. Pers. 43, 703–706 (2009).
  13. Little, A. C. & Perrett, D. I. Using composite images to assess accuracy in personality attribution to faces. Br. J. Psychol. 98, 111–126 (2007).
  14. Walker, M., Schönborn, S., Greifeneder, R. & Vetter, T. The basel face database: A validated set of photographs reflecting systematic differences in big two and big five personality dimensions. PLoS One 13, (2018).
  15. Qiu, L., Lu, J., Yang, S., Qu, W. & Zhu, T. What does your selfie say about you? Comput. Human Behav. 52, 443–449 (2015).
  16. Wang, Y. & Kosinski, M. Deep neural networks are more accurate than humans at detecting sexual orientation from facial images. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. DOI: 10.1037/pspa0000098 (2018).
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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to psych.SE, and thank you for taking the time to post an answer. Please note that link-only answers are discouraged here; it would be appreciated to add a brief summary of the overall content of these papers so that a reader can get an idea of the actual answer to the question here, and use the references for further reading if desired. Really extensive list of references for this - thank you for that. $\endgroup$
    – Arnon Weinberg
    Jul 12, 2019 at 14:31

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