Women Easier to ‘Read’ Than Men

BBC Staff.  (2009). “Women’s Traits ‘Written on Face’.”  BBC News. Retrieved on 22 June, 2010.


This article is about the findings of a Glasgow University and New Scientist study carried out by Dr. Rob Jenkins of Glasgow University and Professor Richard Wiseman of the University of Hertfordshire.  The study examined the extent to which personality traits could be identified from people’s facial features.  The results suggest that women’s personality traits can be more easily identified via facial features than men’s personality traits.  These results were surprising (Dr. Jenkins is quoted as saying “We did not expect there to be such a big difference between the sexes.”) and may offer some insight for future research on the link between a person’s physical appearance and his/her personality.

Over 1,000 New Scientist readers participated in the study which consisted of a photograph (in which, like a passport photo, the participant is looking directly at the camera) submission and an online personality questionnaire listing four personality dimensions: lucky, humorous, religious, and trustworthy.  Participants rated how they believed they fit into the four personality dimensions, and the extremes of these ratings (for example, those who are “very lucky” and “very unlucky”) were identified and grouped together by the researchers.   The photographs corresponding to the participants identified as “extremes” were blended electronically into composites which then served as an average of the extremes.  These composites were inversely paired (for example, one “very religious” was paired with one “very not religious”) and posted on a website—the article does not mention the name or URL of the website.   About 6,500 visitors to the site attempted to identify the personality corresponding to each composite.

While none of the male composites were correctly identified as religious, humorous, lucky, or trustworthy, the only female composites to not be identified correctly were those marked as humorous. The other three, lucky, religious, and trustworthy, were correctly identified 70%, 73%, and 54% of the time respectively.

While researchers suggest that the study shows that women’s faces are simply easier to read than men’s faces, there are other possible explanations for the results.  The article suggests that male participants were “less insightful or less honest when rating their personalities” or that “women were more thoughtful when selecting the photographs they submitted.”  In any event, the findings shed light on people’s tendency to associate facial features with particular personality traits and points to a possible connection between physical appearance and personality.

Concept Design:
Survey meant to determine the extent to which someone can identify another person’s personality traits with only a still photograph (in this case a composite, though, I am assuming the website visitor would be unaware that it is a composite rather than an actual person) as a basis for judgment.

Interaction Design:
This survey functioned by electronically blending still photographs of participants’ faces and then posting them online for visitors of a particular website (not named in article) to try and determine the personality trait corresponding to that photograph.  It does not, however, take into consideration how facial movements may play a part in “revealing” a person’s personality-for example, the angle of one’s smile or the furrowing of a brow.  How the website works is not explained.  It could be a series of pictures, which the visitor will examine one by one, and move on to the next only once he or she has clicked on and attributed to the photograph a personality trait.  There is no mention of possible errors such as a glitch in a visitor’s computer forcing him or her to click on a trait multiple times or the possibility that a participant who submitted a photo for the survey would then go on the website as a visitor and identify him or herself in a composite.

Interface Design:
Most of the survey is online (I believe the photograph would be uploaded onto the same site as the personality questionnaire) and so the product’s look and feel would possibly vary from computer to computer, it may be completely different on a Mac than on a P.C., for example.  The color settings on each computer screen may affect the general appearance of a photograph and thereby skew a visitor’s judgment of that photograph’s corresponding personality trait.

The findings of this study have several interesting implications for product design, especially for product design in the field of communications, particularly, broadcasting.  Any audience must have a degree of faith in the actions and words of a person he/she is watching on television or in a movie (we will not consider radio broadcasting since the article does not touch upon what can be “written” in someone’s voice, though I would argue there may be some parallels).  Take, for example, the live broadcast of the winning lotto numbers in the United States.  The audience must believe that the person drawing the numbers is completely trustworthy.  To this effect, it would be in the producer’s interest to hire a person with features found to be common in people considered to be trustworthy.  Moreover, it would be beneficial to hire a woman as the study suggests female faces are easier to read than men’s.  (I believe it is worth noting that I personally cannot recall ever having seen a man hosting the lotto number drawings on television.  Admittedly, my memory may be inaccurate, but, if not, it makes sense considering the findings of the abovementioned study.)  The same implications would hold true for any type of representative from a car salesperson to a doorman, or from a pastor to a party host/hostess.