Faces of aggression

Faces of aggression

NHL enforcers tend to have wide faces, but does the broadness of a face mean aggressiveness of character?
March 1, 2010
Ryan Delmonte (inset), former captain of the
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Ryan Delmonte (inset), former captain of the Brock University hockey team, illustrates the measures used in calculating the facial width-to-height ratio.
Cheryl McCormick

Even if you can’t distinguish NHL enforcers Todd Bertuzzi and Chris Neil from a referee, you’d probably know at first sight not to mess with them. And not just because of their physical size. The men employed to intimidate the opposition tend to have wide faces, and that, Brock University’s Cheryl McCormick has discovered, is characteristic of a more aggressive nature.

“Even in just a fraction of a second, people can assess, with some accuracy, how aggressive someone is,” says the Canada Research Chair in Behavioural Neuroscience and professor at Brock’s Centre for Neuroscience and department of psychology. “It may be part of the fight-or-flight response — knowing who to take on and who not to. It’s likely especially meaningful in encounters with strangers. Even so, we were pretty surprised that this is happening.”

McCormick and her graduate student Justin Carré started looking into the relationship between face shape and aggression after learning that a British study found men’s faces are broader, relative to the height of the face, than those of women. The relationship, however, emerged only after puberty, leading McCormick and Carré to believe testosterone is involved.

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The relationship between face structure, aggression and testosterone is not fully understood, says McCormick, but “we know testosterone alters face shape.” And it has also been shown that testosterone is involved in regulating whether experiences and behaviours are rewarding. As a result, the team figured that teenaged boys receiving larger doses of testosterone, which would make their faces wider and make them act more aggressively, would be more likely to enjoy rough behaviour as adults.

To test their theory, Carré and McCormick took the facial measurements of the Brock University hockey team and looked at them in relation to penalty minutes. Then they did the same thing with six Canadian NHL teams. There was a significant correlation in both instances, says McCormick.

McCormick then teamed up with Cathy Mondloch, a Brock colleague specializing in facial perception, to take the research further. To see whether the average person recognizes the connection, they took pictures of Caucasian men, measured their facial ratio and tested their propensity for aggression. Then they showed each picture to people for 39 milliseconds and asked them to estimate, on a scale of one to seven, how aggressive they thought the test subject was. They found the observers were very good at identifying aggressive males and could do so very quickly. The team also performed a number of other tests which confirmed it was the facial measure, not some other facial feature or expression, that is the giveaway: a wider face — relative to its height — is more likely to be aggressive.

Justin Carré demonstrates how an angry facial
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Justin Carré demonstrates how an angry facial expression reduces the height of the face. This may explain why neutral faces (third picture) with larger width-to-height ratios are perceived as more aggressive.
Cheryl McCormick

“We never expected the correlation to work out as well as it did,” says McCormick.

Mondloch and McCormick are now expanding the study to other ethnic groups by working with University of Toronto professor Kang Lee and colleagues in China. Together, they will investigate whether the relationship between the width-to-height ratio and the tendency toward aggression holds across the races and whether people can accurately detect this cue in the faces of other races. McCormick is also experimenting to determine at what age we learn to identify aggressive faces.

But don’t expect to see hockey scouts measuring the faces of Junior A prospects, says McCormick. “It’s too imprecise a measure to be used in that way.”

It does suggest our instincts are to be trusted. “We’re prone to snapjudgments,” she says. “And some of those judgments are very accurate. I think it’s interesting that we’re so different from our ancestors, yet the forces that shaped us psychologically are still with us today.”