Facial shape analysis identifies valid cues to aspects of physiological health in Caucasian, Asian and African populations

Ian D. Stephen, Vivian Hiew, Vinet Coetzee, Bernard Tiddeman, David I. Perrett

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Facial cues contribute to attractiveness, including shape cues such as symmetry, averageness and sexual dimorphism. These cues may represent cues to objective aspects of physiological health, thereby conferring an evolutionary advantage to individuals who find them attractive. The link between facial cues and aspects of physiological health is therefore central to evolutionary explanations of attractiveness. Previously, studies linking facial cues to aspects of physiological health have been infrequent, have had mixed results, and have tended to focus on individual facial cues in isolation. Geometric morphometric methodology (GMM) allows a bottom-up approach to identifying shape correlates of aspects of physiological health. Here, we apply GMM to facial shape data, producing models that successfully predict aspects of physiological health in 272 Asian, African and Caucasian faces – percentage body fat (21.0% of variance explained), body mass index (BMI; 31.9%) and blood pressure (BP; 21.3%). Models successfully predict percentage body fat and blood pressure even when controlling for BMI, suggesting that they are not simply measuring body size. Predicted values of BMI and BP, but not percentage body fat, correlate with health ratings. When asked to manipulate the shape of faces along the physiological health variable axes (as determined by the models), participants reduced predicted BMI, body fat and (marginally) BP, suggesting that facial shape provides a valid cue to aspects of physiological health
Original languageEnglish
Article number1883
JournalFrontiers in Psychology
Publication statusPublished - 30 Oct 2017


  • face perception
  • health perception
  • geometric morphometrics
  • evolutionary psychology
  • Facial appearance


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