Illustration: Ashley Siebels
It’s not uncommon to have a hunch about someone’s name based on their facial features. As it turns out, there’s scientific evidence to back up this idea, according to research in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology published online in February 2017.
It all boils down to the “face-name matching effect,” a way in which, the researchers say, “both a social perceiver and a computer are able to accurately match a person’s name to his or her face.” They found that participants were able to do so “significantly above chance level” and that cultural associations (“stereotypes”) about names play a role, and this may be partially because what people thought about the names was reportedly specific to a participants’ background.
In case you think it’s just human bias: robots think we look alike too. The researchers found that computer that had been taught to match names to faces with a learning algorithm, when presented more than a whopping 94,000 pictures of faces, succeeded the majority of the time, nailing between 54% and 64% of its guesses.
Who participated in the study
The researchers carried out eight studies total— six where hundreds of French and Israeli participants matched names to faces (done in varying formats, with each study having different numbers of people) and featuring computer that had been taught a algorithm.
But no matter who was participating in the study— human or machine— the participants were shown pictures of faces of people they didn’t know, each one accompanied by different names‚ one of which was the person’s actual one.
What the researchers found
Of all of the findings, here are a few that stood out.
As the press release points out, during each study, human participants did better picking the right names (25-40% correct) than doing so randomly (20-25% correct), “even when ethnicity, age and other socioeconomic variables were controlled for.” It also states that when a computer participated during a study, it was 54-64% accurate, compared to 50% accurate when doing so randomly, and that the results were “culture-specific” when humans participated.
Study 5 also helped illustrate that people did better than choosing at random. Participants were shown a picture of a man with the choices Jacob, Josef, Nathaniel and Dan. Spoiler: his name was Dan— they picked this name 38% of the time compared to “the 25% chance level of a random guess.”
But it works both ways— people’s names sometimes impact their faces, which they hypothesize is somewhat of a “Dorian Gray Effect,” citing prior research.
The study found that “the face-name match implies that people ‘live up to their given name’ in their physical identity. The possibility that our name can influence our look, even to a small extent, is intriguing, suggesting the important role of social structuring in general and naming in particular in the complex interaction between the self and society. We are subject to social structuring from the minute we are born, not only by our gender, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status, but also by the simple choice that others make in giving us our name.”
Lead author Yonat Zwebner, a PhD candidate at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem when the research was carried out, commented on the findings in a statement, showing that stereotypes can play a role.
“We are familiar with such a process from other stereotypes, like ethnicity and gender where sometimes the stereotypical expectations of others affect who we become…Prior research has shown there are cultural stereotypes attached to names, including how someone should look. For instance, people are more likely to imagine a person named Bob to have a rounder face than a person named Tim. We believe these stereotypes can, over time, affect people’s facial appearance,” Zwebner said.
We sometimes attribute certain names to people based on cultural stereotypes, but it’s also possible for our names to impact how we present ourselves.