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Personality from Appearance

January 29, 2017

We all do it, without even thinking.  It has a name: physiognomy.  It used to be considered a science, but not anymore.  We all believe we can determine someone’s personality from their appearance.  It’s a survival skill.  We can make an immediate decision about a person.  Are they friendly?  Are they an enemy, about to kill us.  A good idea, but unfortunately, it doesn’t work.  Only family members are likely to be friendly.  Everybody else is suspect.

I remember being on a committee that was conducting job interviews.  We had already looked at the resumees.  Everybody we interviewed was qualified for the job.  Some people on the committee said that they were a good judge of character.  They needed to see the person.  In the end, we all voted on who to offer the job to.  We picked one person.  We even all agreed.  That one person did the job well.  The people who claimed to be a good judge of character were validated.  In truth, we could have chosen any one of the candidates.  That person would have done the job well too.  They were all good.

I’ve read almost all of Charles Dickens‘ novels.  He writes elaborate descriptions of characters in each novel.  In particular, he describes the facial features, the bearing, and even the clothing of each character.  We, the reader, are supposed to recognize the personality and social class of each person from this description.  Evil people have a dark  countenance and shifty eyes.  Upper class women have a fine nose, white hands, and tiny feet.  This is all nonsense.  We recognize that now.  Still, we use it to classify people.

I just read about Captain Fitzroy, who commanded HMS Beagle on surveying expeditions to Tierra del Fuego.  Charles Darwin was his companion on the second voyage.  The book was Evolution’s Captain by Peter Nichols.  Fitzroy was a firm believer in physiognomy, along with its relative Phrenology.  Certainly we all know now that phrenology, reading the bumps on your head, is nonsense.  The same fate should be given to physiognomy.

I also read Charles Darwin’s book, the Voyage of the Beagle, based on that same trip.  Darwin explored the east and west coasts of South America, along with Tierra del Fuego.  He travelled inland on foot and on horseback.  He often described the facial expression of savage races.  Clearly, he believed we could read their personalities from those expressions, but he also believed in the inherent goodness of people.  He was open to change in his beliefs, just as he was open to the new ideas that eventually led to his discovery of the mechanism of evolution.

We need to be open to other people too, instead of making immediate judgements about them.  People are just people, regardless of whether they look just like us or look quite different from us.  Physiognomy is no longer a useful survival skill.  It’s now a barrier that prevents us from getting to know other people.


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