People seem able to correctly match a person’s name to her face better than chance. ‘You look like a Rachel! Is your name Rachel?’ If you haven’t said something similar to a person, you certainly thought about it. Common sense says you shouldn’t be able to predict a person’s name simply by looking at the face but there’s clearly more to it. The researchers responsible for these recent findings say it may have something to do with cultural stereotypes.

The experiment involving a computer algorithm showed people who have the same name share common facial features around the eyes and mouths. Not incidentally, these features are the easiest to adjust. Credit: Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

The experiment involving a computer algorithm showed people who have the same name share common facial features around the eyes and mouths. Not incidentally, these features are the easiest to adjust. Credit: Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Yonat Zwerbner and colleagues from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem made a series of experiments involving hundreds of volunteers from France and Israel. Each participant was presented with mugshots and asked to assign a name to the person from a shortlist of four or five names. In each experiment, the participants were better at matching the name and face than random chance. Results varied from 25 to 40 percent accuracy, compared to 20 to 25 percent random chance. These findings stood even when age, ethnicity or socioeconomic variables were controlled for.

The Dorian Gray Effect

In one of the experiments, the participants had to choose between a mix of French and Israeli faces and names. Curiously, the French participants were better than random chance only when matching French names and, likewise, the Israeli students were better than random chance only when they matched Hebrew names.

To drastically up their sample size, the researchers also trained a machine algorithm to match names with faces by feeding it 94,000 portrait images. The machine was 54 to 64 percent accurate, which is significantly better than random chance (50 percent accuracy).

Zwerbner thinks this effect is due, in part, to cultural stereotypes since the effect is culture-specific. It could be that people subconsciously alter their appearance to conform to cultural norms associated with their names.

“We are familiar with such a process from other stereotypes, like ethnicity and gender where sometimes the stereotypical expectations of others affect who we become,” said Zwebner. “Prior research has shown there are cultural stereotypes attached to names, including how someone should look. For instance, people are more likely to imagine a person named Bob to have a rounder face than a person named Tim. We believe these stereotypes can, over time, affect people’s facial appearance.”

This may seem like an odd hypothesis — people changing their appearance to match the look of a stereotypical ‘Bob’ or ‘Tim’ — but one experiment found simply changing hairstyle was sufficient to produce this effect. The researchers also found that participants were less accurate at matching faces and names when the people featured in the photos used a nickname exclusively. This may suggest that a person’s appearance is affected by their names only if it’s actually used and not if it’s simply stated on a driver’s license.

“Together, these findings suggest that facial appearance represents social expectations of how a person with a particular name should look. In this way, a social tag may influence one’s facial appearance,” said co-author Ruth Mayo from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “We are subject to social structuring from the minute we are born, not only by gender, ethnicity and socioeconomic status, but by the simple choice others make in giving us our name.

It’s one of the oddest studies I’ve come across recently but if the scientists are actually on to something, it can only mean our personalities and behaviors are far more sculpted by society than we care to think.

“A name is an external social factor, different from other social factors such as gender or ethnicity, therefore representing an ultimate social tag. The demonstration of our name being manifested in our facial appearance illustrates the great power that a social factor can have on our identity, potentially influencing even the way we look,” added Dr. Mayo.

Findings appeared in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 

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