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“Wide-faced men are going to lie and cheat”

Monday, June 25, 2012
posted by Douglas Keene

We’ve read about aggressive men with thick necks and wide faces. We often suspect them of being violent thugs. Some, more charitably, might opine they are simply more confident and assertive. Or maybe weight-lifters. New research says they are also likely liars and cheaters. Seriously?

We all have biases and use stereotypes to make snap judgments about others but this one is pretty extreme.

Wide face = liar and cheat.

Hmmm. Let’s take a look at the research wherein men with wide faces were three times more likely to lie in competition and nine times more likely to cheat than those with “skinny heads”.

Researchers had undergraduate male business majors play a competitive game. Prior to the game, photographs were taken and researchers measured the breadth across cheekbones and the height of the face from upper lip to eyebrow ridge and then calculated the “width to height ratio”. Just to be safe, they also calculated the relationship between face-width-to height-ratio and the participants height and weight. They didn’t want to confuse “wide-face” guys with “big guys”. There was no relationship between having a wide face and being big in size.

The researchers cite past research (although quite recent) showing we judge men with wide faces as untrustworthy, dominant, less attractive, aggressive, less warm, less honest and less cooperative. That behavior is apparently different when engaging in group competitive activities.

What these researchers found was that while engaged in group cooperative endeavors–when winning was on the line–men with wider faces were more likely to make sacrifices to support their own group. In other words, while in groups they were prosocial even though other research has shown antisocial behavior from wide-faced men interacting in dyads.

There are several things we find interesting about this study [and prior work on wide-faced men] in terms of litigation advocacy:

First impressions matter! We write a lot about the power of first impressions and how they often rely on stereotypes and biases that may be outside conscious awareness. According to past research, the American public tends to believe that wide-faced men are thugs disposed to violence or aggression.

First, be aware of the tendency to (often unconsciously) judge these men differently. If you know the person to be a good guy, you are likely to overlook this level of judgment by strangers.

You want to show that your wide-faced client/witness is different than other wide-faced men, and help the jury to understand that they are a lot like the juror and their friends.

If you have your own wide face, you want to pay attention to communicating gentleness and self-deprecation as you interact in the courtroom.

According to this research, context matters! It’s important to place your wide-faced client in context for jurors. If the individual was involved in a group endeavor, their motivations may have been supportive and prosocial [in contrast to a tendency toward antisocial motivations in dyads as pointed out by past research]. It will be important to show jurors examples of the individual self-sacrificing or generous acts the wide-faced party performed.

Finally, this is research done by evolutionary psychologists which is always sort of strange. (Some of us have wide faces and aren’t liars and cheaters!) Take it with a bit of caution but also know–we have preexisting and largely negative stereotypes about men with wide faces. It may be wise to counteract those stereotypes with examples of how “this wide-faced man isn’t a liar and a cheat”!

Stirrat, M., & Perrett, DI (2012). Face structure predicts cooperation: Men with wider faces are more generous to their in-group when out-group competition is salient. Psychological Science. DOI: 10.1177/0956797611435133

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