Fidelity, Fertility and More, Revealed in Your Lover’s Face

What can you tell from other people’s faces? More than you think.

There are plenty of dating books out there that tell you what to look for in a mate, but there is only one that will really key you into the physical qualities that could determine whether tonight’s dinner date will be a good match for you – and whether he or she will stay faithful. (Shocker, it’s not a dating book!)

Contrary to, well, pretty much everything you’ve ever heard, people’s faces tell us plenty about their real motivations and personalities, according to Prof. David Perrett, the head of the Perception Lab at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. His recent book, In Your Face: The New Science of Human Attraction pulls together the years of research he and his team have done studying attractiveness, fidelity, fertility and even sociability – all traits that we can parse from faces.

Turns out that phenotypes (which is how genes express themselves – phenotype is the combo of genes and their response to the environment) show in our faces, and over evolutionary millennia, we have actually become pretty adept at reading others’ countenances. While some people are natural face readers and others are less good at it (turns out that the cynical and less optimistic people are actually better readers), we all have some ability to correctly identify basic characteristics from faces, though much of the time we are probably doing this subconsciously.

Dubious? I was too, until I took a few of the tests, and my answers matched the results that Prof. Perrett found. Looking at a series of photos of men and women’s faces that are digitally altered (and are the actual photos used in the past research projects), readers are asked for example, which look extroverted and which look introverted. The alterations are subtle, but a quick glance tells me which guy at the bar I would feel more comfortable asking for directions when I’m lost. The trick is that the faces look like pretty much the same people – the digital alterations are in the wideness of their eyes, the set of the mouth, and other small changes.

The ramifications of these small variabilities are borne out in Chapter 9 of the book, called “Faces with Attitude: How the personality we seek in a partner guides our face tastes.” Here Prof. Perrett asks us (and previously, his research subjects), to judge which people in a group of pictures are most attractive. Most commonly, women judged men who appeared more assertive as more attractive (this trait is tied to higher testosterone and to squarer jaws, as well as more mature features). But interestingly, not all women are drawn to the dominant male. (My test results matched what I seek out in my real life; I consistently find that softer looking, intelligent, and somewhat introverted men pique my interest). Of course, as Perrett also points out, if we were all attracted to the same type of guy (or girl), the human race wouldn’t be as successful as it is.

Prof. Perrett has not only looked at aggressive vs. passive guys, he has also looked at faces and their connection to what he terms “devoted lovers” (who are more likely to contemplate sex only in the context of a long-term relationship) and “no-strings people” (who are open to short-term sexual relationships). Looking at composite photos of both men and women who have already filled out a questionnaire about their sexual habits, he found that more masculine, assertive-looking men are more likely to be ‘no strings’ guys – and women are attracted to them for short-term partnership as well, but not for long-term mates. Men were more attracted to the women who are ‘no-strings’ types for both short- and long-term relationships.

Though some of this information is compelling, there is still plenty more to be learned by scientists who study attraction and perception. Most of the whys behind the above info are unexplained and for now are just theories. This is just the beginning of this kind of research about who we are, and there’s plenty more to be done. But we are a bit closer to understanding why, in a room full of cute strangers, we are drawn to that one.

To try out some of the tests yourself, read more about the results discussed above, and learn more about how this kind of science is done, visit the Perception Lab.

Image: Jane Rahman, Elvert Barnes


Starre Vartan

Starre Vartan has been covering eco fashion, natural beauty, ethical travel, and sustainable design for over a decade. She's written for magazines (Whole Living, Metropolis) and online (Huffington Post, MNN,, Inhabitat) and she has been honored as a thought leader by Glamour and Self magazines, as well as quoted in the New York Times (thrice). She's the author of "The Eco Chick Guide to Life: How to Be Fabulously Green" (St. Martin's Press) which was based on her longrunning blog, Starre was born Down Under in Sydney, Australia and has dual citizenship with the United States, as she grew up and was educated in the Hudson Valley of New York. She has a Bachelors of Science degree in Geology from Syracuse University and a Master of Fine Arts in Nonfiction writing from Columbia University. She splits her time between the Connecticut coast and Manhattan and loves to read, hike, snowboard, horseback ride, travel, and she will swim in almost anything (from lake to sea, cenote to mountain swimming hole).