ISSN 1671-3710
CN 11-4766/R

Advances in Psychological Science ›› 2022, Vol. 30 ›› Issue (2): 308-323.doi: 10.3724/SP.J.1042.2022.00308

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Identifying people based on physiognomy: Explanations from cognitive perspective

ZHANG Chao, WEI Xuhua, LI Yingming   

  1. School of Management, Lanzhou University, Lanzhou 730000, China
  • Received:2021-05-28 Online:2022-02-25 Published:2021-12-24
  • Contact: WEI Xuhua E-mail:

Abstract: Physiognomy is an important factor in identifying and inferring the individual traits and behaviors. However, its internal mechanism still needs to be further explored. Physiognomy usually refers to individual facial features, mainly including partial features and overall features. The partial features of facial features include the size and shape of the five sense organs, and the thickness of hair, while the overall features of facial features include objective facial width-to-height ratio and subjective facial attractiveness. Based on general cognitive perspective and evolutionary cognitive perspective, then combined with the local and overall features of physiognomy, this paper expounds the process and effect of judging people by physiognomy.
The general cognitive perspective emphasizes that people study the process of cognition from the perspective of information processing, which emphasizes the process of perception. The individual's response to physiognomy is mainly a by-product of the brain's processing of information, which is the processing mechanism for general information. Based on stereotypes, halo effects, status generalization theory, and social information processing theory, scholars use different cognitive processing systems to illustrate the process of getting to know people and their effects. Specifically, local features such as the size and shape of the five sense organs, the thickness of the hair, and overall features such as the facial width-to-height ratio and facial attractiveness can affect individual recognition of traits such as empathy, friendliness, extroversion, self-confidence, narcissism, aggression, dominance and criminological inheritance through different cognitive processing systems. Observers' subsequent behaviors is based on the individual traits' information recognized by the physiognomy. On the one hand, people will judge their income, ability, and social level based on the identified individual traits. On the other hand, these individual traits play an important role in the trust decision-making, the recruitment and promotion decision-making process. All in all, physiognomy affects the recognition of individual traits through various cognitive processing systems, and these traits play important roles in judgment (ability, income, social hierarchy) and decision-making (trust, recruitment, promotion).
Compared with the general cognitive perspective, the evolutionary cognitive perspective emphasizes that in the process of processing information, people will identify which cues are related to health, survival, propagation and adaptation to the environment according to the evolutionary needs. Based on evolutionary theory, evolutionary intrasexual competition theory and the good genes theory, scholars have discussed how to know people and its effect through two different evolutionary selection mechanisms: natural selection and sexual selection. The observer uses the gene as the driving force to identify the observed physiognomy. Observers assessed marital satisfaction, life satisfaction and happiness based on the health and genetic status they identified. In order to meet the needs of evolution and survival, people will choose a mate according to the health and genetic status of the individual identified when observing facial features, combined with the evolutionary law of "survival of the fittest". In conclusion, physiognomy plays an important role in evaluating individual health and genetic status through various evolutionary selection mechanisms, and thus has an important influence on judgment (marriage satisfaction, happiness, life satisfaction) and mate selection decision.
In addition, the effect of physiognomy on individual life depends on the situations and individual traits. The decision situation of the face viewer, the cultural context of the face owner, and the individual traits of the face viewer and the face owner all influence the effect of physiognomy's identification. Future research should investigate the interaction among different physiognomy features, and explore the boundary conditions that influence the effect of facial recognition. Furthermore, it is necessary to improve the external validity of the research through big data analysis, and pay more attention to physiognomy features modified by epigenetics on individuals. It is also important to conduct research within the domestic context. In doing so, it will help enrich physiognomy-related research and build a more systematic physiognomy theory.

Key words: physiognomy, the five sense organs, facial width-to-height ratio, facial attractiveness, general cognitive, evolutionary cognitive

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