By Alex Fradera
What can we tell about someone from their face? Their favoured facial expressions can hint at their temperament, the weathering of their skin at their life history, their facial hair and makeup at their aesthetic taste. But now, new research in the journal Attitudes and Social Cognition suggests that we can also intuit their names, because a person’s given name influences their facial appearance in adult life. On the face of it (sorry) this is hard to believe, but the case, made across eight studies, is based on plenty of careful evidence, and also proposes a plausible explanation.
In the first of several experiments, Yonat Zwebner at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and his team showed student participants 20 colour headshots of a person with a neutral expression and asked them to choose which of five given names they would assign to each face based on sheer intuition. The given names included the true name of the person in the photo and four alternatives. When participants picked the name that genuinely belonged to the photo’s subject, they were scored as correct. Chance performance (i.e. random guessing) would mean getting 20 per cent correct, on average, but the participants performed better, at 28 per cent. For 17 of the 20 faces they achieved greater accuracy than you’d expect based on random guessing.
Another study was similar but this time Zwebner and his colleagues used photos only belonging to people from an Ashkenazi Israeli ethnic background and who were in their mid-twenties, and the mix of actual and filler names were all drawn from the same ethnic population (the intention was that this would avoid potential confounds due to participants choosing the correct name because of extrapolation from the name or ethnicity). This study also threw in a control condition – participants had the same menu of names to pick from, but the photos were covered up – the idea was to check whether participants’ were being drawn to the correct names because they were for some reason simply more pickable. In fact, participants in the control condition showed no tendency towards picking the true names, whereas participants who could see the photos managed an average face-name matching accuracy of 25 per cent (again better than you’d expect if they’d just guessed at random).
In further studies, the researchers made sure they took account of the possible influence of the relative popularity of different names. They also conducted a replication in France with photos of French people and featuring French names. Whatever changes they made, the researchers found the same thing: based purely on the appearance of someone’s face, participants had an inkling of their name.
The same proved true when the researchers programmed a computer to match names to faces. Through machine learning processes using a training set of nearly 100,000 faces drawn from an online networking site, a computer programme learned to distinguish between true and false names of faces at better than chance levels. The data was rich enough to evaluate specific comparisons, so we know that in this dataset the algorithm found it impossible to tell from her photo whether a woman was called Emilie as opposed to Jeannie, but found it almost no trouble to tell whether another woman was called Emma rather than Veronique (in this case achieving 95 per cent accuracy).
So what’s going on? One possibility is that we give babies names that somehow reflect their physical properties, and observers are simply drawing on these same associations to guide their judgments. This would be an example of the wonderfully titled bouba-kiki effect, wherein across cultures certain sounds seem soft or round, others hard or sharp. However this seems a bit of a reach, given that at the time most babies are named, they are still pretty similar-looking (sorry parents).
Moreover, when the researchers looked for cross-cultural effects by testing Israeli students with French stimuli and vice-versa, they found none: the participants lost the ability to match names at better than chance levels. If the bouba-kiki effects was behind it, the feel of the names – independent of their cultural meaning – would be sufficient to make the associations. So despite some earlier coverage, this isn’t a compelling explanation for the new data.
Zwebner and his team think it is likelier that their findings reflect some sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. Within a given culture, names carry associations – historical and celebrity figures, “types” (a Kevin versus a Brad), and cues related to class or background (contrast Tony with Tristan). Once a person is named, these associations form a filter through which all their future interactions take place – starting with parental guidance and expectations, then first encounters with schoolyard peers, career guidance counselling – and even if the filter is a subtle one, over a lifetime these effects can accumulate to impact how we act in the world, and ultimately this ends up written in our faces – by our preference for smiles over frowns, big mugging expressions over wry understated ones, or an open relaxed visage rather than one tight-lipped and controlled.
If this explanation is correct, we’d expect to see a stronger influence of names upon those parts of the face and appearance that are more under voluntary control. Consistent with this, in one study the researchers found that removing hair style (arguably one of the aspects of our appearance over which we have most control) from the photos significant reduced participants’ ability to identify the correct names for the photos, though they still performed better than chance.
To investigate this more deeply, Zwebner’s team turned to their algorithm, investigating which pixels of each photo were most useful in making accurate name-matches, and using this data to create heat-maps of the faces. These clearly showed the margins of the faces (aside from hair itself) were next to useless and the nose and ears were also of limited value. The most important facial areas for correct name identification were the brows, eyes and mouth – areas that are habitually engaged in voluntary facial expressions.
This suggests that the effect due to given names is an extension of the Dorian Grey effect, the phenomenon where personality influences facial appearance. In terms of links between facial appearance and personality, we already know that short-tempered people tense certain facial muscles more frequently than do relaxed people, which can make their resting face appear angry, for example. Or that adolescent women who are more sociable are perceived as more attractive later in life, presumably because smile lines are construed as more attractive than a tight-set face. The bundle of associations that make Celina’s name reflected in her face are arguably doing the same thing, but through a more circuitous route (for example, the name label leading to differential treatment that then contributes to personality, and finally onto the face), which would explain why the effects were statistically significant but not large in size.
So, if you’re struggling to pick the ideal appellation for your newborn, these new findings suggest that on top of everything else you have to worry about, your decision will likely influence what they look like as an adult – but only to a small extent. If you want to predict their future appearance, you won’t find the answers by gazing at their potential namesakes. But you might get a clue.
Image is from Zwebner et al, 2017. The correct name for this example is Dan.