Can you tell just by the width of a man's face that he's probably going to pick your pockets as he climbs over your body in his aggressive sprint up the corporate ladder? As unlikely as that sounds, there's probably some truth in it, according to several independent lines of research.
Researchers in the United States, Scotland, and Canada have all found evidence that a man with a wide face is likely to be very aggressive, less trustworthy, and prone to lying.
And the latest study, from the University of California at Riverside, indicates a wide face can generate a social ripple effect, causing others to act selfishly as they seek to do unto him before he does unto them.
The findings seem so bizarre on the surface that even the lead author of the latest paper from the Riverside researchers, published in the Public Library of Science, urges "caution in interpreting this."
The width of a man's face is only one of many factors determining his behavior, lead author Michael Haselhuhn said in a telephone interview. So don't judge a man just on that one factor, although the evidence indicates it could play a role in how we interact at work and at play.
All the studies are based on the ratio between the width and the length of a man's face, not just the width alone.
And it's almost impossible to determine the ratio just by looking at the face. The researchers worked with photographs of their subjects, which they could measure in their labs, coming up with a precise number for the ratio. President Richard Nixon had an especially wide face, but President Obama has an average width, although to most people, it appears narrow. Put a ruler on it, Haselhuhn said, and you'll find it's average in width.
All of which begs the question of why the width of a man's face should have anything to do with his behavior.
"There seems to be an evolutionary basis for it," Haselhuhn said. "Men tend to have a wider facial ratio than do women, which suggests it must be a good thing for guys to have. Wide-faced guys must be doing something right."
Recent papers have built on an intriguing study four years ago from Brock University in St. Catharines, Canada.
Psychologists there found that men – but not women – with a high width to height facial ratio were far more likely to be very aggressive, at least in competitive sports.
The Canadian scientists reached their conclusions after studying varsity level, and professional, hockey players. Hockey, as all Canadians know, is not a sport for the timid. But an aggressive player who breaks the rules winds up spending time in the penalty box, robbing his team of one player.
The researchers determined the width-to-height facial ratio, and found that players with wider faces spent more time in the penalty box than players with average faces. They concluded:
"This facial metric could be used to predict another's propensity for aggressive behavior."
Interestingly, researchers in Scotland reported last year that while a wide face may contribute to aggression and cheating and exploitation, it also has a "pro social" side. A wide-faced hockey player may happily bash the head of an opponent, but he is also more likely to be "self-sacrificing" when it comes to members of his own team.
In other words, even a hockey player can be nice to his teammates because he wants to see his own group succeed.
That's consistent with another finding by the Riverside team. Haselhuhn and his colleague, Elaine Wong, compared the width of the faces of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies and found that companies led by a man with a wider face were much more likely to be financially successful.
Haselhuhn concedes that there is much more at work there than just the width of one man's face. How the boss interacts with his other executives, whether the company has a good product, and probably luck play important roles.
But if the guy has a wider-than-average face, is that likely to influence the behavior of his subordinates? The latest Riverside study says yes.
Nearly 800 persons in the U.S. and England took part in four studies designed to measure selfishness and trust worthiness. They played games in which they could distribute money to themselves and another person.
"They could divide things equally, they could choose to get more money for themselves, or they could choose to be really competitive and just make sure they got way more than the other person," Haselhuhn said.
After completing the experiments, photographs were taken and the width-to-height facial ratio was determined.
Not only were the wider-faced guys more likely to claim as much of the wealth as possible for themselves, if the partners thought the other guy had a wider face, or had been told he was likely to be aggressive, they reacted in kind.
Thus greed incites greed in others, and something as simple as the width of a human face may play a role in that.