Leesfragment: Face Value

30 maart 2018 , door Alexander Todorov
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Donderdag 5 april komt Alexander Todorov naar Athenaeum Roeterseiland om te spreken over zijn boek Face Value: The Irresistible Influence of First Impressions. Lees nu een fragment op Athenaeum.nl en reserveer je kaartje.

We make up our minds about others after seeing their faces for a fraction of a second—and these snap judgments predict all kinds of important decisions. For example, politicians who simply look more competent are more likely to win elections. Yet the character judgments we make from faces are as inaccurate as they are irresistible; in most situations, we would guess more accurately if we ignored faces. So why do we put so much stock in these widely shared impressions? What is their purpose if they are completely unreliable? In this book, Alexander Todorov, one of the world's leading researchers on the subject, answers these questions as he tells the story of the modern science of first impressions.

Drawing on psychology, cognitive science, neuroscience, computer science, and other fields, this accessible and richly illustrated book describes cutting-edge research and puts it in the context of the history of efforts to read personality from faces. Todorov describes how we have evolved the ability to read basic social signals and momentary emotional states from faces, using a network of brain regions dedicated to the processing of faces. Yet contrary to the nineteenth-century pseudoscience of physiognomy and even some of today's psychologists, faces don't provide us a map to the personalities of others. Rather, the impressions we draw from faces reveal a map of our own biases and stereotypes.

A fascinating scientific account of first impressions, Face Value explains why we pay so much attention to faces, why they lead us astray, and what our judgments actually tell us.


The Physiognomists’ Promise

Agnieszka Holland’s movie Europa Europa is based on the autobiography of Solomon Perel. As a German Jewish boy, Perel is forced to escape Nazi Germany. Aft er a chain of events that includes stints in Poland and Russia, he is captured by German soldiers. To save his life, he pretends to be Josef Peters, a German from Baltic Germany. Eventually he wins the admiration of the soldiers and their commanding officer and is sent to a prestigious Hitler Youth School in Berlin. One of his scariest moments at the school occurs during a science lesson on racial purity. Next to the giant swastika flag hang three large posters showing faces overlaid with measurements. The teacher walks in and asks, “how do you recognize a Jew?” and then continues, “that’s quite simple. The composition of Jewish blood is totally diff erent from ours. The Jew has a high forehead, a hooked nose, a flat back of the head, ears that stick out and he has an ape- like walk. His eyes are shift y and cunning.” In contrast to the Jewish man, “the Nordic man is the gem of this earth. He’s the most glowing example of the joy of creation. He is not only the most talented but the most beautiful. His hair is as light as ripened wheat. His eyes are blue like the summer sky. His movements are harmonious. His body is perfect.” The teacher continues, “science is objective. Science is incorruptible. As I have already told you, if you thoroughly understand racial diff erences, no Jew will ever be able to deceive you.” Th is is where the frightening moment for Perel/ Peters really begins. The teacher turns toward Peters and asks him to come forward. Horrified, Peters reluctantly goes to the front of the room. The teacher pulls out a measuring tape and starts measuring his head—first from the chin to the top of the head, then from the nose to the top of the head, and then from the chin to the nose. While the measurement continues, there is a close up on Peters’s face as he anxiously tracks the actions of the teacher. The teacher continues with his measurement. He measures the width of Peters’s head and then compares his eyes with different eye colors from a table. “The eyes. Look at his skull. His forehead. His profile [turning Peters’s head, who is visibly blushing]. Although his ancestors’ blood, over many generations mingled with that of other races, one still recognizes his distinct Aryan traits.” On hearing this, Peters almost jerks his head toward the teacher’s face. “It’s from this mixture that the East-Baltic race evolved. Unfortunately, you’re not part of our most noble race, but you are an authentic Aryan.”
The “objective science” of physiognomy was not invented by Nazi scientists. It has a long history originating in ancient cultures. The physiognomists’ claims reached scientific credibility in the nineteenth century, although this credibility came under attack by the new science of psychology in the early twentieth century. Their claims were wrong, but the physiognomists were right about a few things: we immediately form impressions from appearance, we agree on these impressions, and we act on them. These psychological facts make the physiognomists’ claims believable, and the claims have not disappeared. A surge of recent scientific studies test hypotheses that the physiognomists would have approved of. An Israeli technology start-up is offering its services in facial profiling to private businesses and governments. Rather than using a tape to measure faces, they use modern computer science methods. Their promise is the old physiognomists’ promise: “profiling people and revealing their personality based only on their facial image.” We are tempted by the physiognomists’ promise, because it is easy to confuse our immediate impressions from the face with seeing the character of the face owner. Grasping the appeal of this promise and the significance of first impressions in everyday life begins with the history of physiognomy and its inherent connections to “scientific” racism.


The first preserved document dedicated to physiognomy is Physiognomica, a treatise attributed to Aristotle. The major premises of the treatise are that the character of animals is revealed in their form and that humans resembling certain animals possess the character of these animals. Here is one of many examples of applying this logic: “soft hair indicates cowardice, and coarse hair courage. This inference is based on observation of the whole animal kingdom. The most timid of animals are deer, hares, and sheep, and they have the softest coats; whilst the lion and wild-boar are bravest and have the coarsest coats.” The logic is also extended to races: “and again, among the different races of mankind the same combination of qualities may be observed, the inhabitants of the north being brave and coarse-haired, whilst southern peoples are cowardly and have soft hair.”
In the sixteenth century, Giovanni Battista della Porta, an Italian scholar and playwright, greatly expanded on these ideas. Humans whose faces (and various body parts) “resembled” a particular animal were endowed with the presumed qualities of the animal. His book is filled with illustrations like the one in Figure 1.1.

Uit Alexander Todorov, Face Value: An illustration from Giovanni Battista della Porta s De Humana Physiognomia.
Figure 1.1. An illustration from Giovanni Battista della Porta’s De Humana Physiognomia. Della Porta’s book, in which he inferred the character of people from their supposed resemblance to animals, was extremely popular and influenced generations of physiognomists.

This particular illustration appears four times in the book in analyses of different facial parts, yet the message is consistent. People who look like cows— whether because of their big foreheads or wide noses—are stupid, lazy, and cowardly. There is one positive characteristic: the hollow eyes indicate pleasantness. As you can imagine, those who “look like” lions come off much better.
Della Porta’s book was very popular in Europe and enjoyed multiple translations from Latin into Italian, German, French, and Spanish, resulting in twenty editions. The book influenced Charles Le Brun, one of the dominant figures in seventeenth-century French art. Le Brun, appointed by Louis XIV as the first Painter of the King, was also the Director of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture. In 1688, Le Brun delivered a lecture on the facial expressions of emotions: the first attempt in human history to systematically explore and depict suchexpressions. After Le Brun’s death, the lecture—discussed, admired, and hated by artists—was published in more than sixty editions. Le Brun also delivered a second lecture on physiognomy. Unfortunately, this lecture was not preserved, but some of the illustrations survived. Compare della Porta’s Lion-Man in Figure 1.2 with Le Brun’s Lion-Man in Figure 1.3.

Uit Alexander Todorov, Face Value: An illustration from Giovanni Battista della Porta s De Humana Physiognomia.
Figure 1.2. Another illustration from Giovanni Battista della Porta’s De Humana Physiognomia. Compare this illustration with Figure 1.3.

Uit Alexander Todorov, Face Value: After Charles Le Brun, lion and lion-man. Le Brun was developing a system for comparing animal and human faces.
Figure 1.3. After Charles Le Brun, lion and lion-man. Le Brun was developing a system for comparing animal and human faces.

Le Brun’s drawings are more beautiful and true to life, and it is apparent that he was trying to develop a much more sophisticated system of comparisons between animal and human heads. Le Brun experimented with the angles of the eyes to achieve different perceptual effects. He noted that the eyes of human faces are on a horizontal line and that sloping them downward makes the faces look more bestial.



© Princeton University Press & Alexander Todorov

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