Face Value: The importance of feminine mystique in perceived facial trustworthiness.

William Costello
9 min readMay 2


People have used physiognomy to infer personality from faces for centuries, including the godfather of criminal anthropology, Cesare Lombroso. Trait evaluations from facial perception predict important outcomes, including sentencing decisions, despite having low predictive power for real world behaviour. Our study hypothesised that feminised female faces would be perceived as more trustworthy than masculinised female faces, due to previous research showing that neotenous faces are perceived as more honest, along with research, supported by evolutionary theory, that feminine females are perceived as cooperative. Participants were shown 48 female faces on computer screens 50% feminised and 50% masculinised and asked to rate the perceived trustworthiness of each face. A t-test was used to find that feminised female faces were perceived as significantly more trustworthy than masculinised female faces. However, we suggest that future studies introduce an ‘‘attractiveness’’ component, a more contextual definition of trustworthiness, and a more gender-balanced partcipant sample. The significance of our findings suggest that law makers should question the role that facial perception should play in the judicial system.

The belief that personality can be inferred from facial appearance has persisted over centuries, with the pseudoscience of physiognomy famously recognisable in Dickensian literature and more contemporary literature such as Roald Dahl’s (1980) “The Twits”.

The pseudoscience of “physiognomy” famously recognisable in Roald Dahl’s (1980) “The Twits”.

If a person has ugly thoughts, it begins to show on the face. And when that person has ugly thoughts every day, every week, every year, the face gets uglier and uglier until you can hardly bear to look at it. A person who has good thoughts cannot ever be ugly. You can have a wonky nose and a crooked mouth and a double chin and stick-out teeth, but if you have good thoughts it will shine out of your face like sunbeams and you will always look lovely.

Literary archetypes pervade cultural consciousness and even Cesare Lombroso, the founder of criminal anthropology, argued that specific crimes are committed by men with particular physiognomic characteristics (Gould, 1996). Trait evaluations from faces can…

William Costello

Psychology PhD Student University of Texas at Austin. MSc Psychology, Culture and Evolution from Brunel University London 2020/21. Bylines: Areo and Quillette.