Nov 02 2009

Unconscious Influences and the Faces of Homosexual and Aggressive Behavior

Published by at 8:29 am under psychology

Two recent studies have supported the argument I made in my post last Friday: Knowing the Knower’s Natural Ignorance. In it I wrote,

Thinking can be readily influenced by all sorts of things, many beyond conscious awareness.

I might add that “thinking” is probably a poor word to describe the full range of perceptual/emotional/cognitive processes the brain does. That word implies rational, conscious deliberation.

As anyone with years of quality, well-rounded education under their hat knows, homosexuality and aggression are not behaviors people freely choose (though relatively “freely chosen” — entailing conscious deliberation — may play a role in some cases). Just as heterosexuality and more altruistic behaviors are not likewise fully freely chosen.

In the first study, For gay and straight men, facial attraction operates similarly, we learn that both homosexual and heterosexual men have distinct preferences for particular types of face shapes. But their preferences differ.

By the way, I applaud the way the article includes heterosexual behavior in the discussion. The particulars of attraction are different, and scientifically speaking, equal. It is only after-the-scientific-fact that we make judgment about which is good/better and which is bad/worse.

The study finding is straightforward and not all that surprising:

A new study from a researcher at Harvard University finds that gay men are most attracted to the most masculine-faced men, while straight men prefer the most feminine-faced women.

This suggests to me a potential way to distinguish between very strongly gay males and males of with more gray-area sexuality: Show the guy some headshots of chisel-jawed studs. If the guy feels aroused/attracted to the photos, he might be . . . fundamentally homosexual.

The article additionally mentioned these already-known nuggets about human sexuality:

Sexually dimorphic features in male faces include a broad jaw, broad forehead, and more pronounced brow ridge. A sexually dimorphic female face has a more tapered chin, larger lips, and a narrower forehead.

Prior research has also shown that women prefer more masculine male faces when ovulating, indicating an evolutionary function for facial attraction. Men who have faces that are higher in sexual dimorphism (masculinity) have been shown to have better health and dominance but lower investment in offspring.

In terms of aggressive behavior, many studies have shown that this is not wholly freely chosen either. Besides clearly genetic links, studies have highlighted physical clues as to whom is more likely to behavior aggressively.

One replicated study I recall discovered that a greater difference in the length of pointer and middle fingers in men and women correlates with higher testosterone levels. And higher testosterone levels are associated with a greater propensity for aggressive behavior.

What does finger length have to do with anything? Testosterone levels influence fetal development. Relative finger length is one curious consequence of higher testosterone levels during development.

A more recent study has focused not on fingers but faces. In, Angry faces: Research suggests link between facial structure and aggression we learn:

a quick glance at someone’s facial structure may be enough for us to predict their tendency towards aggression.

It seems the rapid, unconscious prediction is based upon face shape. Here’s the nitty-gritty:

Facial width-to-height ratio (WHR) is determined by measuring the distance between the right and left cheeks and the distance from the upper lip to the mid-brow. During childhood, boys and girls have similar facial structures, but during puberty, males develop a greater WHR than females. Previous research has suggested that males with a larger WHR act more aggressively than those with a smaller WHR. For example, studies have shown that hockey players with greater WHR earn more penalty minutes per game than players with lower WHR.

In the recent study, subjects were shown a quick flash of male faces. The males had previously been assessed (questionnaire?) for aggressiveness. And what do you know, that quick glimpse of a face provided enough information for subjects to make estimates about aggressiveness that significantly correlated with the previous measure.


Maybe “facial profiling” isn’t a complete joke.

Update: I was off on which fingers provide a clue to prenatal exposure to testostorone.  It is the ring and index finger.  For more on this, see my newer post, Testosterone and the Reading of Finger Lengths.

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