Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Aug 13, 2019

“Head-ing” towards a New Understanding of Face Perception

by Zachary Witkower and Jessica Tracy
Photos of a woman expressing different emotions

We make quick judgments about other people in all kinds of situations – interviewing a job candidate, walking down a dangerous alleyway, or meeting somebody at a bar, to name a few. When we make judgments about others, one of the first things that happens is that we focus our attention on the person’s face. This is not surprising, as the face contains information relevant to the judgments we want to make, information that can be helpful in answering questions such as: Is this person friendly? Does she like me? Is he competent?

However, in most social interactions, we do not see only people’s faces. Instead, we see their face as it rests upon its physical foundation: the head. Although you might assume that a person’s head is irrelevant to what’s happening on his or her face, our research indicates that subtle head movements can dramatically change the way a person’s face appears and thereby affect other people’s perceptions of the person.

In an article published in Psychological Science, we reported evidence from five studies showing that tilting one’s head downward, even slightly, substantially increases how dominant a person’s face appears to be – even when the face itself remains neutral and inactive. We found that tilting the head down systematically changes the appearance of a person’s face by causing the eyebrows to appear V-shaped.

This V-shape appearance is similar to how people’s eyebrows appear when the corrugator muscle – a facial muscle on the forehead – activates, as it often does when people are angry. (Picture an angry person’s eyebrows slanting and furrowing as he or she glares at you.) Furthermore, activation of the corrugator muscle – and the resulting V-shaped eyebrows – is associated with increased perceptions of social rank and dominance across cultures. So, a slight shift in how people hold their heads can substantially change the appearance of their face, even without the corrugator muscle activating.  And this subtle change makes a person appear more dominant.

In two of our studies, research participants were shown photographs of people holding their heads at a neutral angle or tilting them up or down ten degrees. Participants judged how dominant the person in each photograph appeared by rating them on statements such as “This person would be willing to use aggressive tactics to get his/her way.” Results showed that participants rated individuals who were photographed tilting their heads downward as substantially more dominant than individuals who held their heads at a level angle or tilted them upward.

In another study, we tested whether the effect of head tilt on judgments of dominance was due to the visual illusion involving the eyebrows described above.  As I noted, tilting one’s head down creates a V-shaped eyebrow pattern that mimics corrugator muscle activity. We used Photoshop to replace the eyebrows in a downward-head-tilt photo with the eyebrows from a neutral-head-angle photo to see how people rated a downward-tilted head that didn’t have the V-shaped eyebrows. If tilting the head downward increases perceptions of dominance by changing the appearance of the eyebrows, this effect should not occur when the person’s eyebrows are in a neutral position, even if the head is tilted downward. This is exactly what we found: a downward head tilt increased ratings of the person’s dominance only if the eyebrows had a V-shaped appearance.

In a final study, we recruited two samples of participants. One sample (we’ll call them “targets”) were photographed posing neutral facial expressions both while tilting their heads downward and while holding them at a neutral angle. The other sample (we’ll call them “judges”) then viewed these photographs and rated the person’s dominance. We replicated our finding that targets who titled their heads downward were perceived as more dominant.

Then, we precisely measured the degree of V-shape of targets’ eyebrows in all of the photographs and found that targets who tilted their heads downward had more strongly V-shaped eyebrows compared to those who held their heads at a neutral angle. Finally, we found that the increased eyebrow V-shape in these images was linked to higher ratings of dominance. This finding explained why judges perceived downwards-tilted faces – which had more angular V-shaped eyebrows – as more dominant.

Together, these findings show that seemingly neutral, unexpressive faces can communicate social information depending on how the person’s head is positioned. Furthermore, like facial expressions, head movement can affect people’s perceptions of a person by changing the appearance of the person’s face. As a result, when we form judgments about other people – whether on a date, in a job interview, or when passing somebody on the street – we may focus our attention on their face, but our perceptions of them are affected by more than their face alone.

For Further Reading:

Witkower, Z., & Tracy, J. L. (2019). A facial-action imposter: How head tilt influences perceptions of dominance from a neutral face. Psychological Science30(6), 893-906.

Witkower, Z., Tracy, J. L., Cheng, J. T., & Henrich, J. (in press). Two signals of social rank: Prestige and dominance are associated with distinct nonverbal displays. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Zak Witkower is a PhD student studying Social/Personality Psychology at the University of British Columbia.  Jessica Tracy is a Professor of Psychology at the University of British Columbia and a Sauder Distinguished Scholar. 

About our Blog

Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

Search the Blog

Get Email Updates from the Blog