Physiognomy: Real Or Pseudoscience?

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Have you ever encountered a stranger and thought, “That guy must be from a wealthy family”? What made you assume that? Something in their outward appearance must have given you that idea. Was it their clothes? The way they carried themselves? Their unusual social manners? Or was it their facial features?

You might think it’s silly to check a person’s character based solely on their physical appearance. But scientists have been studying this practice for some time now. It even has a name to it—physiognomy.

“The first impressions we form about other people based on their facial appearance influence important social outcomes. They influence who we choose as friends and lovers, who we choose to hire and fire, and even who we vote for,” Benedict Jones Ph.D. points out.

What Is Physiognomy?

Physiognomy is the act of determining temperament and character from outward appearance. In the physiognomic process, one studies other people’s physical features. With the gathered data, one identifies that person’s personality traits.

The practice of physiognomy has existed since ancient times. Pythagoras picked his students based on how skilled they appeared. Even Aristotle’s works made physiognomic assertions. “Most people today find these ideas fanciful. Yet, research suggests that people do subscribe to a naïve physiognomy,” Alexander Todorov, Ph.D.

A few examples are as follows: People with large heads were mean. Those with broad faces were stupid. Those with round faces were courageous.


Later in history, people wrote entire books on the subject. Cesare Lombroso, an Italian criminologist, and physician, wrote L’uomo Delinquente (“Criminal Man”) in 1876. It contained the author’s beliefs and theories about criminology. To him, criminals are born, and their deviant behavior stems from inherited characteristics. Studying certain parts of a person’s anatomy helped detect these tendencies.

Another book is Aristotle’s Masterpiece by the Pseudo-Aristotle. The author wrote it in 1986. “Displaying the Secrets of Nature, Relating to Physiognomy” was the label of the third part of the book. It delves into the different parts of the body and how they help in determining a person’s character. It documented twelve different types of noses and what it revealed about one’s personality.

According to Gwen Sharp, PhD, “These pseudosciences were taken quite seriously at the time, with “experts” showing that Africans and African Americans, for instance, had facial features that proved them to be less civilized and intelligent than those of European descent and that Jews were inherently deceitful.” The literature on the topic has been scarce since the nineteenth century. Scientists tend to dismiss physiognomy as pseudoscience due to its lack of scientific bases. To them, there is no legitimacy to its methods. 

However, it has recently been the focus of a research paper. The paper does not only talk about the uses of physiognomy. It puts it to the test.

A Study From 2016

Xiaolin Wu and Xi Zhang published “Automated Inference on Criminality using Face Images” in November of 2016. It talks of a machine’s ability to differentiate between a criminal and a non-criminal.

The researchers fed photos of criminals and non-criminals to the machine and waited to see if it sorted them correctly. It would follow four different methods. The results showed that the accuracy of all four methods in distinguishing between criminals and non-criminals was relatively high. The most accurate one acquired a rate of 89.51 percent.

Based on the gathered data, the researchers were able to pinpoint three critical areas for determining criminality. These three areas were the eyes, the mouth, and the philtrum.


After they made the conclusions, the researchers stated that they wished to dissuade people from depending on physiognomy. The results of the test are highly accurate. However, one cannot make such a huge generalization based on a single experiment.

Many problems arise from this experiment. Critics of Wu and Zhang argued that the machine’s algorithms could not be wholly objective. After all, it was humans who created it and its processes. It’s entirely possible for it to carry the same biases as its creator.

Additionally, the sample photos used for the experiment were all Chinese. It would be unwise to make a sweeping statement based on such a limited sample size.

Real Or Pseudoscience?

Physiognomy is tricky. The line between legitimate findings and discrimination based on sex and race is thin. How does a researcher know when he or she has crossed the line?

Because physiognomy is so challenging to study, scientists tend to veer away from it. Its notoriety as a supposed pseudoscience makes it even more undesirable as a topic of research. Besides, no one wants to receive accusation of racism, sexism, or any discrimination when they put out the results of their experiments.

Whether this field of study is a legitimate science is an unanswered question. Its methods follow the scientific method, but the claims that it puts forward seem exaggerated. The evidence of its legitimacy hinges on flimsy arguments.

Until scientists discover a direct link between physical characteristics and mental character, many will see physiognomy as pseudoscientific.

Regardless of its infamy, physiognomy is still a field worthy of study. Humans will always have the urge to understand themselves. To do this, we categorize ourselves based on color, sex, and personality type. Physiognomy offers another form of classification.


We should study physiognomy. By doing so, we can find out if it is a process that holds merit or if it indeed is a pseudoscience that ought to be cast aside and forgotten.

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