JERUSALEM — Is it possible to guess a person’s name based on his or her facial appearance alone? Not in the abstract, perhaps. But an Israeli study finds that when observers are given a person’s photograph and multiple choice name options, they choose the right name nearly 40% of the time, far above the 25% odds of a correct random guess!
Researchers at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (HUJ) theorized that people often identify with the social labeling and expectations associated with their name. And their desire to conform becomes reflected in their facial appearance, which makes it possible to guess their name with such surprising success.
“Our research demonstrates that indeed people do look like their name,” says Dr. Ruth Mayo, senior lecturer in the Department of Psychology at HUJ, in a university release. “Furthermore, we suggest this happens because of a process of self-fulfilling prophecy, as we become what other people expect us to become.”
The effect was not affected by demographic factors, Mayo’s team found. Predictors of different age and ethnicity displayed the same success rate.
Remarkably, the social context and ramifications of a person’s public appearance are so strong that predictors were able to beat the odds of guessing a name when they had only a hairstyle – and not a complete photo — to go on. Researchers even subjected the test to computerization, removing the possibility of human intuition and bias. When a specially-prepared computer program reviewed the same set of names and photos, it also beat the standard odds.
Still, there are limits to what researchers have labeled the “Dorian Gray” effect — named for the character in an Oscar Wilde novel whose portrait in a painting was affected by his behavior and appearance.
When predictors tried to guess the names of people in foreign nations, they were far less successful. The cultural context and names – typically expressed in another language — were simply not familiar enough. Mayo suggests that her study revealed just how much a person’s identity was affected by “social structuring” – that is, by what other people think of you, often based on stereotypes.
“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,” she says.
The study is published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
This article was first published on March 11, 2017.