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Bossing it

Three faces, one rotated up, one level and one rotated down
Head postures: images of a face rotated up, level and rotated down

New international research led by the University of St Andrews reveals that facial expression and head angle are key to making a person look bossy and untrustworthy.

The research, in collaboration with Dalian University of Technology in China and published in the online journal Perception (Tuesday 2 March 2020), reveals that tilting the head down or up makes a person look bossier and less honest. This change in personality is due to a change in apparent expression.

The international team of scientists, led by Professor David Perrett from the School of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of St Andrews, looked at the importance of head posture and its role in people’s perception of others.

Human vision is not very good at realising the true three-dimensional shape of the head. When the head is rotated all the features remain the same shape but, to others, they look different – the face looks wider and the emotion looks sterner. Previous research carried out in this field focused on why different people look approachable or competent as opposed to the importance of head posture.

The research team studied how the same person changes in appearance when they adopt different postures. The study revealed that face cues to negative emotion take priority over face cues to positive emotion if both change, so rotating the head either up or down ends up with the face looking more hostile.

Head rotation down makes the mouth appear to curve upwards, looking more like a smile, but the same posture also lowers the apparent height of the eyebrows making the expression look hostile. Rotating the head up has the opposite effect, making the mouth curve down and appear stern but the eyebrows look more positive.

Associate Professor Dongyu Zhang from Dalian University explains: “We took photographs of 24 faces posing with different head tilts, 20 degrees up, down or level, while maintaining eye gaze at the camera. Sixty-seven observers rated the character of the person depicted in each photo. Judgments were then related to the apparent emotion and to the shape of facial features.

“We found that facial width did not relate to the change in personality but apparent emotion from the mouth curvature and eyebrow height explained the change in both trustworthiness and dominance.”

Lead scientist, Professor David Perrett, from the School of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of St Andrews, added: “Getting an impression of the way someone is likely to interact with you is important for all sorts of social situations. We avoid those who look untrustworthy or overbearing because we don’t want to be cheated or bossed around.”

Professor Perrett notes: “It is interesting just how profoundly posture affects our appearance and others perception of us. If we want to look honest and not too domineering, then we should avoid both looking down and looking up to others.”


Issued by the University of St Andrews Communications Office.

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