There hasn't been much of a debate about this paper at Science 2.0, so I thought I might briefly review it, and see what everybody else thinks. But, before we start, I should make one thing clear. I'm not a psychologist. I'm not even an evolutionary psychologist; I'm a paleontologist. And I should also make it clear that I am often very dubious of a lot of the findings of evolutionary psychologists, which often seem to me like pontificating on very banal things with very little actual science going on.

Anyway, I happened to see the advance publication of this paper, published in Proceedings, which I want to hear some other peoples views on. Because, at its core, this paper implies that not only can people be born immoral, but that this predilection is written in the structure of our faces.

From Flickr, by Gaetan Lee

Phrenology is the belief that different aspects of your character manifest themselves in bumps and bulges in the skull, which correspond to the area of the faculty responsible for that trait in the brain itself. It was all the rage in Victorian England, and indeed around the world, and it was a reputable sister to the the field of psychology. Many authors of this period were enthusiasts, including Bram Stoker, the Brontes, and Herman Melville. This is an extract from the Hound of the Baskervilles, by Arthur Conan Doyle,

Mortimer (centre) talking to Baskerville, Holmes and Watson

Dr. Mortimer: You interest me very much, Mr. Holmes. I had hardly expected so dolichocephalic a skull, or such well-marked supra-orbital development. Would you have any objection to my running my finger along your parietal fissure?
Sherlock Holmes: Please, Dr. Mortimer.
Dr. Mortimer: A cast of your skull Sir, until the original becomes available?
[Holmes bursts into laughter]
Dr. Mortimer: It is not my intention to be fulsome, but I confess, I covet your skull.
Sherlock Holmes: Behave and sit down, Dr. Mortimer.
[Gesturing to the chair]
Dr. Mortimer: [dog sits beside Mr. Mortimer] Spot. Yes, good boy.
Sherlock Holmes: Well, I presume it was not your phrenological passion which drew you to Baker Street.
Dr. Mortimer: Unfortunately it was not, Sir.

Dolichocephaly is a long, thin head, characteristic of a typical Aryan head. The arches over the eyes are the areas, according to System of Phrenology by George Combe, that house the organs responsible for perception, such as weight, number, tune, and hence in Holmes' case, the moral faculties are exceptionally developed. Combe explains of this area that
it is the faculty of consciousness [...] which produces the feeling of natural right on the part of one to demand, and of natural obligation on another to perform.

Needless to say, it's all bunk. As we all know, the consciousness isn't compartmentalised like that. Phrenology's proponents completely ignored the complete lack of scientific evidence and continued to make what were little more than assertions about people's personalities. Eventually, it became widely seen as pseudoscience, like alchemy or necromancy. The real death knell was a real life Godwin's effect: the Nazis used phrenology to define their aryan master race. Have a look at this Google Ngrams for the popularity of phrenology in the literature over the past 200 years, showing an almighty peak in the mid 19th century before its subsequent preciptious fall from grace,

Recently, a growing body of work has begun to show that many aspects of our morality,
and the ability to detect unethical behaviour in others, may, in fact, be innate. But here is where this study treads on new grounds: can genetically determined physical characteristics be a visual indicator of an individual's morality? We already know that facial expressions like facial tension and posed smiling are interpreted as signifying ethically questionable behaviour. But could we be born with an innate, underlying bias, that is written all over our faces? So, a psychologist would be able to examine a skull, in the same way as the phrenology enthusiast Dr. Mortimer did above, and conclude "Hmmm... you seem to be an aggressive person, and your moral senses seem to be lacking..."

My first reaction on seeing this paper title, I'll have to admit, was "Horseshit - surely this is just phrenology disguised as a scientific study?" Which makes me a bad scientist, obviously - I mean, you can't judge a paper by it's title, only by it's scientific rigour - and I can't really dismiss something in a subject I know little about. And, after all, it's published in the usually dependable Proceedings. So let's hear them out!

Theoretically, of course, if we had a reliable and unique indicator of unethical personality, individuals that possessed it would be selected out of the gene pool - nobody likes unethical dicks. However, Haselhuhn and Wong physical propose an exception to this. Is is possible that physical associates of evolutionarily desirable characteristics, such as physical dominance, are highly correlated with other, less socially acceptable actions, such as cheating?

The thing is, like it or not, aggression is consistently shown to be a preferable character in a mate (though not a requisite, clearly as with yours truly). But wouldn't aggression also be correlated with unethical behaviour? If so, then physical traits that have been selected as reliable signals of male dominance and aggression would, by proxy, serve as reliable predictors of morally questionable actions.

Now, it is already possible to read people's faces to see how aggressive they are, through a parameter called the facial width-to-height ratio (WHR). Men with greater facial WHRs are more likely to retaliate to perceived slights by others, and are more likely to act in their own self-interest, even if it means violating another's trust. Basically, don't trust wide faced men.

Don't trust this guy...

...but do trust this guy
. I should point out, before any snarky commenter does, that really, these differences probably only manifest after puberty

Here's the science bit, then. In the first study, WHRs of 192 male and female students were measured from photographs. The students were randomly paired to negotiate by email a fictional business deal over property. The "seller" was told not to sell the property if it was to be developed commercially, but the "buyer" was told to buy the property to turn it into a hotel, providing opportunities for deception during the negotiations. In the second study, the 103 participants played a dice rolling game, this time playing for a chance to win money. Both men and women reported dice rolls significantly higher than rolls expected by chance, but again, only high WHR in men emerged as a predictor of cheating.

So, the results suggest that men who lied were three times as likely to have wide faces as thin faces. Maybe there's some truth in the ol' phrenology then? Indeed, Sherlock Holmes, with his long
dolichocephalic head, would, according to this research, be inferred an epitome of a deeply moralistic person; something we know seats well with the "real" Holmes.

Haselhuhn relates this marker to testosterone related changes during puberty, and state that

Our analyses indicate that this effect was driven by men's sense of power. Men with relatively larger WHRs felt more powerful and, in turn, this sense of power directly predicted the overstatement of the reported dice rolls. Men with relatively wider faces are more aggressive and self-interested, which allows them to secure a greater share of resources when competing with other men.

However, Paul Zak has pointed out that just 18 out of the 192 students lied during the negotiations, and of the 115 men in the study, only 13 lied. It could feasibly be just chance, then. He also makes the point that,

Alpha males have less rather than more incentive to cheat because they are on top of the world, with the best looks and the most attractive females

So, I might reserve judgement. I do have to say, though: it's not phrenology in the truest sense. It's certainly not suggesting that the cheekbones are bigger because that brain needs the room or something, and we certainly shouldn't dismiss it out of hand. But what does everybody else think?


Michael P. Haselhuhn and Elaine M. Wong
Bad to the bone: facial structure predicts unethical behaviour
Proc R Soc B 2011

Other links,