What Our Faces Say About Us

Erman Misirlisoy, PhD
6 min readNov 22, 2018
Photo by fer gomez on Unsplash

Let us be grateful to the mirror for revealing to us our appearance only

— Samuel Butler

The 19th century English author, Samuel Butler, was famously wrong about how evolution works. Instead of supporting Darwin’s accurate theory of natural selection, he was a Lamarckian, believing that evolutionary change is primarily driven by an animal’s behavior during its lifetime rather than the heritable advantages it is born with. Surprisingly, he may also be a little wrong in his charming quote about our mirror’s revelations.

The first thing we notice about any person we interact with is undoubtedly their face. It is the driving seat of verbal communication and emotional expressions. For that reason, we all make rapid judgments about people we meet based on the appearance of the frontal surface of their head. Could this basic impulse have any reasonable justification whatsoever?

To answer this question, we need to look to scientific evidence on the relationship between facial appearances and character traits. But before talking about any of that, we should exorcize a few demons.

I try to teach through my opinions, through my speeches, how wrong it is to judge people on the basis of what they look like, color of their skin, whether they’re men or women

— Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Any fair and rational person knows that Martin Luther King Jr. and Ruth Bader Ginsburg are right when they tell us to judge people by the content of their character. Beliefs and ideas are what matter, not physical appearances. We should be very suspicious about anyone who denies this. Even if our appearance has an identifiable link to deeper facts about us, that central proposition remains true.

To make this idea clearer, let’s assume that people who wear glasses are smarter on average than people who do not wear glasses (there is evidence that this effect is real, and it may relate to reading experience). Knowing this does not mean that you should assume the next myopic person you meet is smarter than you. You will ideally treat them as the individual…

Erman Misirlisoy, PhD

Research Leader (Ex-Instagram / Chief Scientist at multiple startups). Author of the User Insight Newsletter: https://userinsight.substack.com/