26 July 2019

Head Tilt for Dominance

Welcome back. Years ago, in a blog post that warned scientists to do a better job at garnering the public’s trust, I wrote:

All this time I thought people didn’t trust science and scientists because of lobbyists, biased or clueless media, politics and contrarians. Nope. It’s because scientists are cold fish…scientists may be respected by the public but not necessarily trusted; and it’s all because scientists are not perceived as warm (from Trust a Scientist).

Seeking ways to assist not only warn scientists, I then blogged about an older study on facial evaluation; in essence, certain facial features tend to convey trust. I described how those researchers developed models for representing facial trustworthiness and dominance (from Trust a Scientist Addendum).

Judgments of 300 emotionally neutral faces found that certain facial features tend to convey trust (from www.pnas.org/content/105/32/11087.full).
I wasn’t suggesting plastic surgery or other such tweaks. I just thought scientists might use a mirror to practice certain facial expressions or use makeup to raise their inner eyebrows. Or maybe not.

From Trust to Dominance
Today, instead of trust, I’m going for dominance. And this pertains to everyone, even those who failed science in school.

Researchers from the University of British Columbia demonstrated that the perception of dominance need not focus on facial evaluation. In a series of tests involving over 1,500 participants, they found head movements--tilting one’s head downward with eyes looking forward--increased the perception of dominance.

Tests of Perceived Dominance
For one online test with 101 participants, the researchers generated avatars with neutral facial expressions in one of three head positions, tilted up or down 10 degrees or looking straight ahead.

The participants judged the dominance of each avatar image, rating their agreement with statements including “This person would enjoy having control over others” and “This person would be willing to use aggressive tactics to get their way.”

Avatars with downward head tilt were rated most dominant.

In a similar online test with images of humans instead of avatars, 570 participants had the same results. An important additional finding from that test was that the part of the face around the eyes and eyebrows was both necessary and sufficient to produce the dominance effect. 

Images of avatars (top row) and humans (other rows) with neutral facial expressions and heads looking straight ahead (center images) or tilted 10 degrees (from journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0956797619838762).
Other tests showed that the angle of the eyebrows drove the effect. Tilting the head downward can have the same effect on perception as lowering one’s eyebrows. The eyebrows appear more “V shaped,” even if they have not moved from a neutral position.

The researchers point out that “Brow Lowerer” is Upper Face Action Unit 4 in the Facial Action Coding System, which I blogged about in Facial Expressions Addendum

Upper Face Action Units (AU) from the Facial Action Coding System for human expressions (from what-when-how.com/face-recognition/facial-expression-recognition-face-recognition-techniques-part-1/).
Wrap Up
Clearly, social judgments about faces are derived not only from facial shape and musculature but also from head movements.

The researchers are continuing to pursue the topic, exploring whether the effects might extend beyond perception of dominance to how we interpret facial expressions of emotion. They’re hoping to define practical implications for our everyday social interactions.

Appearing dominant is a good start, at least for some of us. Thanks for stopping by.

Study of head tilt perception of dominance in Psychological Science journal: journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0956797619838762
News release on study from Assoc. for Psychological Science: www.psychologicalscience.org/news/releases/head-tilt-dominance.html

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