Acute to obtuse

The weather’s been astoundingly beautiful here for the last week. 70s and cloudless during the day, high 60s in the evening — like New England summer nights. Back east, it’s been snowing and more is expected. Don’t know if I’ll ever be able to go back :). It’s just too nice wearing shorts, throwing disc (and just sitting around! :), and keeping my windows open at night.

A long time ago I signed up for the CD settlement thing that claimed that the major music manufacturers were inflating prices. Well, just recently I got a check for $13.86: my share of the settlement. It’s cool when random stuff like that happens.

It was a strange thing: a little while ago, within a six-hour span, I got emails from my friends John (teaching in China) and Marianne (back in Sweden), neither of whom I had heard from in a while (mostly my fault!). What’s interesting is that while I knew each of them in very different contexts (John: high school, Marianne: IHouse), our friendships were such that they both saw sides of me that most people don’t. So I always end up emailing them when I’m depressed :)… It’s amazing that they actually put up with that crap. They’re wonderful friends, and reading their emails made me very happy.

I’m in the process of trying to design an algorithm to do a certain thing for my research project. This involves me sitting around a lot and daydreaming, er, thinking hard. Actually it really is mostly daydreaming, due to my (legendary) inability to concentrate. Some of this daydreaming involved the “do nice people look nice” problem I brought up a couple of entries ago.

This question has been rattling around in my brain for about a year now, actually. When I was living in IHouse, I saw a lot of faces, some many times, and never met many of the people behind those faces. It really felt like I could tell which of those people were actually nice, and which weren’t, just based on how they looked. I have no idea how accurate I was, though.

For all of these questions, imagine only the person’s face, nothing else. For a rough definition of “nice”, use “considerate of others”.

Do nice people (tend to) look nice?
Do mean people (tend to) look mean?

Do nice-looking people tend to be nice? (question also suggested by Ryan)

Do athletic (coordinated) people (tend to) look athletic?
Do smart people (tend to) look smart?

What other qualities are discernible, if any?

These questions could all be tested by a simple experiment. Take the people in the CS department here, have their acquaintances rate them in these dimensions, and then post their mugshots online and let random people rate them. Compare the two.


If there are any such correlations, why are we able to discern them?

Is it because of the way people choose to present themselves?
Is it because of obvious physiological cues — for instance, do nice people smile more often when they’re walking around?
– If so, are nice people happier than mean people? Or just more prone to smile?
Are we duped into thinking people are nice by conflating niceness with cuteness or beauty? (i.e. What does “look nice” really mean, exactly?)
Might there really just be a link between personality and phenotype? That is, do nice people actually just look different, even with a neutral facial expression, from mean people? I can’t think of any other examples of this, but it would be fascinating if true.

There are a ton of different angles you can take on this, and I won’t bore you with any more.

I’d love to hear anecdotes and thoughts about all of this, though.

[This whole idea ties into a deeper question that I’ve been considering recently, which is whether there is an evolutionary basis for why we like or dislike people based on certain characteristics that you’d think wouldn’t seriously affect the success (in an evolutionary sense) of future interactions, like arrogance or sense of humor.

Specifically, in this case, I’m wondering why occasionally I form an opinion very rapidly after first meeting someone, perhaps within five minutes or less. It sounds awfully close-minded, but it happens. What cues am I picking up? … which is why it would make a lot of sense if I happen to read a lot into the way people look. If it turns out that I am accurate in these assessments, then great. If not, then I better (forcefully) rethink the way I interact with other people.]

Looking back, this is an incredibly dry entry, and probably really boring for people who, well, aren’t me. But much better to raise this stuff on LJ, where you can skim or skip it, than in conversation, when you just might decide that I “look” boring :).

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21 Responses to Acute to obtuse

  1. mmmmm…. phrenology.

    Do nice/mean people tend to look nice/mean?

    There’s no doubt in my mind that I think of nice people as being more physically attractive than I otherwise would, but that’s not the question you’re asking. I think, for the question you’re actually asking, there are obvioius physical cues (like smiling, which you mention), that probably account for most of the outliers. I mean, the woman who scowls all day is almost certainly not a very nice person (barring facial paralysis or some such), and the man who smiles at everyone is probably not entirely mean (but maybe he’s just trying way too hard to get laid).

    Obviously, there’s a vast middle ground here, and that’s where the question is interesting. I find find that when I meet someone new, I tend to assign to them the personality attributes of people that I already know who share facial features with them. But it’s not exactly a “looks like” relation. It’s more a similarity based on “head shape” + “forehead height” + “some characteristic of the eyes” + “other crap” (I think). I do know that some people who “look” relatively dissimilar tend to get together by this metric, whatever it is. Anecdotes: under this metric, AJ is a perfect match for my friend Beepin (nepalese guy) from high school, and I’d say that your personalities match pretty well, too. Melinda’s friend Susie is a perfect match for my friend Colleen, and also for my cousin Colleen, the two Colleens have very similar personalities; Susie is much more combative then the two of them, but otherwise very similar.

    Do athletic people look athletic?

    Not when they’re standing still. But people who are semi-serious athletes move very differently from non-athletes. It’s kinda a weird, subtle, thing, but non-athletes are sort of “floppier”, and athletes seem to always be in good control over where each part of their body is. I know it’s been well documented that atheletes have vastly better proprioreception than other people (meaning they’re aware of where their body is in space); I assume that probably also translates to moving their bodies more delibrately, but who knows. My friend Gary is physically very similar to me in terms of size & shape (he’s a little more muscular, if anything), but the minute we start moving, we look very different (he’s never been an athlete) – some of our friends call him “floppy gary”.

    • aj says:

      Re: mmmmm…. phrenology.

      Right… something like phrenology :)

      Smiling vs scowling — it seems natural to associate mood or disposition with niceness. But someone who frowns all the time can still be nice, right? and just unhappy. It seems like smiling could be very misleading: “I’m happy and therefore nice” … when perhaps the two should be less related.

      It seems like something people could get good at faking.

      The correlation might be strong, though. Are people less nice when they’re unhappy? Probably. But that’s a second-order effect. I’m wondering if you can tell the inner niceness (the range of nice actions across all emotions, or whatever) by looks.

      Your “looks like someone else and has the a similar personality” thing is even weirder. That implies all kinds of stuff about looks and behavior. Maybe you’ve just been anecdotally lucky :).

      • Re: mmmmm…. phrenology.

        >>Maybe you’ve just been anecdotally lucky :).< <

        Entirely possible, and most definitely likely. It also hurts my brain less than the alternative.

  2. ngj says:

    This comes at a convenient time–the second-to-last lecture on Psych of Emotion talked about why we find things aesthetically pleasing. Not completely on topic, but close.

    The experiments out there seem to indicate we like things that we are familiar with, that are symmetric, have higher contrast and “averaged” features. The lecture hypothesizes from this that maybe we like things because we can process them easier. Symmetric things are easier to understand. Higher contrast stands out, and averaged features are more easily recognizable.

    I personally tend to associate nice people with people who can’t do you any harm–after all, if they couldn’t hurt you, they won’t. It maeks it easier to trust. I also think I associate nice-ness with those who look like other nice people I know.

    I think it’s very natural of us to create and use first impressions. It’s not necessarily “right”, but it’s a way of saving us time. Evolutionarily, five minutes of sizing someone up may have been very important–determining how aggressive or cooperative someone is could have been a life and death decision.

    I think our accuracy is reasonably high, not because there are actual causations between some appearance and some personality, but because there are a great many general associations we have. Since everyone’s got them, we push people into those roles. Each push is very slight, but there’s a lot of people interactions over time.

    Changing your role may involve changing your appearance(say, Elliot on Scrubs). Or, say, every girl-makeover movie, from “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” to “She’s All That” (I enjoyed both… but anyway)

    However, situation affects behavior–so what you think of someone may change how someone acts. Surround the person with people that think he’s nice or mean, and they might act like a different person.

    Alright, glad I got all that off my mind. =)

    • aj says:

      attractiveness vs. niceness

      hmm.. yeah so symmetry and such are attractive. (Another reason why symmetry is attractive, I’ve heard, is that it indicates a healthier being.)

      But I think there’s a big difference between being attractive and being nice (at least, there should be!)… There are definitely people who I find attractive yet I don’t think look nice. I wonder what the different cues are that lead me to form such an opinion.

      There’s no question that first impressions are valuable. But they’re only valuable if they’re accurate, as you point out — how can we be accurate if there is no correlation between the personality and appearance? Not sure about that one.

      • ngj says:

        Re: attractiveness vs. niceness

        > (Another reason why symmetry is attractive, I’ve heard, is that it indicates a healthier being.)
        Oh yeah–something about “if you can maintain symmetry in the face of a hostile environment, that means you’re healthier”.

        Hm. Yeah, what I had was close but not quite the same as your original topic. Lemme exercise my imagination…[thinking about attractive people… thinking about nice people…] Right off the bat, age pops up. I can imagine the nice old couple–but not the attractive old couple. I think I get the feeling that niceness is cued from someone’s smile. You can’t help but respond in turn to it.

        Hm. Good point. [thinking] [rereading] Oh, right, I said “causation”. Sure they’re correlated–but because of culture and social pressure. I think we do the self-fulfilling prophecy thing… although I guess there’s a chicken and egg problem to that.

        • aj says:

          Re: attractiveness vs. niceness

          “I think I get the feeling that niceness is cued from someone’s smile.”

          Yeah I think I do to. Which kind of implies that it’s very fakable, but then again I guess we’re probably good at detecting fake smiles.

          Another thing about nice vs attractive — it’s much easier for me to tell which guys (males) are nice than it is to tell which ones are attractive.

          The social pressure thing is very interesting. I’ll have to think about it more.

      • Re: attractiveness vs. niceness

        symmetry vs. niceness:

        my ex-girlfriend’s younger sister’s ex-boyfriend (convoluted?) had hemi-facial paralysis. really interesting. the guy looked like a picasso. he looked like a really nice guy, to me, and to my then-girfriends other friends as well. everyone’s initial opinion of him was strongly positive, in fact.

        the girls all also considered him surprisingly good-looking, if you take these symmetry = attractive people at face value. i’m not convinced; too many of the “hottest people” have some distinctive symmetry-breaking feature (mole, etc…).

        • aj says:

          Re: attractiveness vs. niceness

          “too many of the “hottest people” have some distinctive symmetry-breaking feature (mole, etc…).”

          Do they? Hmm I’ve always thought that Cindy Crawford’s mole was the most overrated counter-symmetry mark ever :)…

          It seems like a good many celebs have blemish-free features.

          • jwscoleman says:

            Re: attractiveness vs. niceness

            You cannot be implying that Lyle Lovett is not hot!

            Actually, I totally agree. Anecdotally, it seems to me that symmetry is almost always more attractive than non-symmetry (even with the mole) and that it’s one of the bigger factors determining attractiveness.

          • judytuna says:

            Re: attractiveness vs. niceness

            1. on symmetry–Britney’s face is slightly asymmetrical (thus making it harder to photoshop her face onto nude models for fake porn. I know this from an article on, not from personal experience, I assure you).

            2. on Everything Else Mentioned In This Post And Subsequent Comments: have you seen ? Little surveys with accompanying pop explanations of data gathered and research performed. I scored a 10/20 on the “recognize the fake smiles” survey (ha. This worries me somewhat). They have a few surveys that address many of the questions you posted, analyzing things like how “masculine” or “feminine” faces affect your reaction to how “agreeable” or “neurotic” your perceive them to be. If you’re interested in this kind of thing it’s worth a look.

            The expected results come out, of course–feminine male and female faces seem more “neurotic” but “agreeable,” masculine males and feminine females look more “extraverted” (they say probably because extravert males look to dominate social situations (masculinely) and extravert females look to attract males (femininely), or something or other, and we are selected to like things like that through evolution, or something or other). Etc etc etc.

            Yeah. And more from the BBC on symmetry and attraction: “It is thought that asymmetrical features are a sign of underlying genetic problems. Numerous studies in humans have shown that men in particular go for women with symmetrical faces. The preference in women for symmetry is not quite so pronounced. Women are also looking for a man’s ability to offer food and protection. This might not be indicated in their genes, but in their rank and status, for example.”

            I found your post fascinating, because I’d just been reading and wondering about the exact same things, after visiting the BBC site through some random person’s livejournal, through which I also saw ! holy shit these drawings are amazing!

            So the point of this comment is: I am comforted by the knowledge that although I’ve got a slightly asymmetrical face, I can still be a wildly successful pop star, even though perfect symmetry is desirable. The end.

          • aj says:

            Re: attractiveness vs. niceness

            Hehe I just took the smile test and got 19/20. Now only if I could make some money off of this newfound “talent”….

            I’m sure I’m going to waste my time doing all the other tests on that site…

            Those drawings are amazing. Wow.

          • gdogg says:

            Re: attractiveness vs. niceness

            17/20. That test is awesome.

          • rwclark says:

            Re: attractiveness vs. niceness

            I also got 17/20. I tended to be overly cautious. I missed two genuine smiles I labeled fake and one fake smile that I labeled genuine.

          • judytuna says:

            Re: attractiveness vs. niceness

            You’ve got skillz.

          • dianaca4 says:

            Re: attractiveness vs. niceness

            OMG I got 6/20. Wow…
            atleast it’s nice to know that I am consistent in quiz performane across the board.

            I was going to add a lot of stuff to this thread (I think people are nice personality-wise due in large part to past conditioning. How you look (not in the smiling/not smiling sense, but attractiveness) effects how people act towards you, and this makes you more/less nice). And I had all these examples, but I don’t feel like typing too much plus I’m sleepy.

            Also, I am confident that I can tell real smiles from fake smiles in real-life situations. So bring it.

          • aj says:

            Re: attractiveness vs. niceness

            So doesn’t that mean that attractive people should be nicer? I could be wrong but sometimes I feel like the opposite is true. Or maybe it’s just the people in the middle who are really nice :)

          • dianaca4 says:

            Re: attractiveness vs. niceness

            Well, not necessarily, it gets really complicated which is why I didn’t want to write out my whole shpeil (don’t know how to spell that). If (or since?) people aren’t as pleasant towards an unattractive person, that person may feel more lonely, or like they don’t have enough friends since they aren’t showered with attention. So that person may be more likely to be receptive and really nice to a random stranger, since they are eager for any new friend. Also, an attractive person has a lot less to lose (in their mind) by being not nice.

            But it kinda goes the other way around as well…I actually don’t think that ‘nice looking people are generally nicer’ is true, nor is the opposite. Niceness level depends on upbringing, place of residence (it seems like everyone is generally nicer in Sweden, for instance), and other things that aren’t really related to looks.

            And now it’s time to take a nap.

          • rwclark says:

            Re: attractiveness vs. niceness

            Anecdotally, are girls (e.g. Judy and Diana) worse at telling the difference? Or are we just awesome?

          • dianaca4 says:

            Re: attractiveness vs. niceness

            I think you are just awesome.

            But I still claim that I can tell fake from real smiles in real life situations!!!

          • gdogg says:

            Re: attractiveness vs. niceness

            I laughed out loud at this.

            I think the one thing I used was how “uncontrollable” the laugh seemed. The more uncontrollable, the more genuine.