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Can the shape of someone’s face tell you how healthy they are?

By Anthony J Lee

You can tell a lot about someone from their face, from simple demographic information such as sex and ethnicity, to the emotions they’re feeling based on facial expressions. But what about their health? Can the shape of someone’s face tell you how likely this person is to catch the common cold?

Studies have found that some facial attributes are associated with having good health. For instance, individuals with physically attractive faces report better health, are perceived as more healthy by others, and score better on objective health measures. Similarly, facial sexual dimorphism (i.e., the masculinity of male faces and the femininity of female faces) also appears to be associated with better health outcomes.

This ability to judge someone’s health based on facial features may be particularly important when choosing a sexual or romantic partner. This is because this will be someone with whom who you spend a lot of time in close proximity with, conditions in which pathogens or diseases are easily transferable from one person to another; also, any resulting offspring may inherit susceptibility to pathogens from their parents. As a result, humans have evolved to prefer facial cues of good health when choosing a sexual or romantic partner. This preference for facial attractiveness or sexual dimorphism may be stronger in those who are more sensitive to pathogen or disease threats.

To test this, in a recent study we asked a large sample of participants to rate the appeal of ostensible online dating profiles. Each profile contained a facial photograph and a personal description, which were embedded in a dating profile template – some examples are shown below. Photographs were chosen to represent a wide range of facial attractiveness, and these were manipulated with special software to be more or less masculine/feminine. Personal descriptions were chosen to represent a wide range of perceived intelligence. Participants also filled in a questionnaire that measured their pathogen disgust – an individual’s level of aversion to exposure to pathogen contagions that could threaten their health.

Examples of dating profiles with male (top) and female (bottom) profile pictures, as well as masculinised and intelligent (left) and feminised and less intelligent (right) pictures and personal description. Note varying degrees of facial attractiveness and intelligence were used.

Findings supported our predictions. For both men and women, individuals higher in pathogen disgust reported greater attraction to facially attractive profiles compared to those with lower pathogen disgust. Similarly, individuals with higher pathogen disgust also showed a greater preference for profiles higher in facial sexual dimorphism. The same effect was not found for the perceived intelligence of the profiles. In fact, interestingly, the more participants preferred facially attractive and sexually dimorphic profiles, the less they preferred intelligent profiles.

While human attraction is a complicated process influenced by a large number of factors, this research suggests that an individual’s perceived health is an important factor when assessing a potential partner’s attractiveness. We found that individuals who are sensitive to pathogens place greater importance on traits associated with good health – in this case, facial attractiveness and facial sexual dimorphism – and we were able to show that these effects occur in circumstances relevant to contemporary settings (i.e., internet dating). It appears that evolved mechanisms shift around what we want in a partner in ways we’re not even aware of, and we’re only just beginning to reveal these fascinating processes.

Anthony J Lee is a graduate student at The University of Queensland, School of Psychology in Australia. His research interests include the role of sexual selection and mate preferences on human evolution; in particular, how contextual factors (such as pathogen prevalence and resource scarcity) influences human mate preferences, as well as preference for genetic quality in a mating partner. He is the author of the paper ‘Human facial attributes, but not perceived intelligence, are used as cues of health and resource provision potential’ in the Behavioral Ecology journal, which is available to read for free for a limited time.

Bringing together significant work on all aspects of the subject, Behavioral Ecology is broad-based and covers both empirical and theoretical approaches. Studies on the whole range of behaving organisms, including plants, invertebrates, vertebrates, and humans, are included. Behavioral Ecology is the official journal of the International Society for Behavioral Ecology.

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Image credit: Datebook profiles image used with permission of A. J. Lee. First published in Behavioral Ecology journal.

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