Observers use facial appearance to predict social behavior and individuals' personality traits. We examined the possibility that social contexts can also influence face perception. To investigate the relationship between competitive social contexts and perceived appearance, we leveraged a known link between aggression and a simple physiognomic cue: the facial width-to-height ratio (WHR). Faces with higher WHRs are perceived as being more aggressive (Carre, McCormick, & Mondloch, 2009) and individuals with naturally higher WHRs exhibit more aggressive behavior (Carre & McCormick, 2008).
Participants played a simple skill game either in competition (N=30) or cooperation (N=30) with a confederate prior to reconstructing the facial appearance of their opponent/partner and a refereeing third party by arranging segmented facial features on a screen until they had produced a best likeness of the target individual. We anticipated that higher perceived aggression during competition would lead to higher reconstructed WHRs than cooperation.
The results supported this prediction: participants' reconstructions had significantly higher WHRs (p< 0.01) following a competitive interaction for both the observer's opponent and the referee. A follow-up experiment that included competitive (N=30) and cooperative interaction (N=30), as well as a baseline condition with no salient social component (N=30) replicated and extended this result. In this second task, we observed a main effect of social context (F(1,87)=5.14, p=0.008) and post-hoc tests revealed that competition led to higher WHRs than cooperation (p=0.013) or the baseline condition (p=0.026), while WHRs in the cooperation group did not differ from those in the baseline group (p=0.96).
This suggests that competition and subsequent perceived aggression systematically bias perceived appearance, while cooperation has little direct effect. These results demonstrate that the social perception of faces is not merely a feed-forward process, but instead that the social contexts in which people interact can shape face perception
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