Social Psychology

Tilting your head can affect judgments of your attractiveness and dominance, study finds

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A study published in Evolutionary Psychology found new evidence to suggest that faces are perceived differently depending on how a person’s head is tilted.

Previous research has found that faces that are angled downward are perceived as more feminine and faces angled upward are perceived as more masculine. It has been suggested that this effect may have to do with sex differences in height. Men tend to be taller than women and, therefore, their faces are often seen from below. Conversely, women tend to be shorter and are more likely to be seen from above.

“My co-authors Amy and Darren, and I recognised that although people mainly use language to communicate, we also have lots of non-verbal ways to broadcast information about ourselves,” said study author Peter Marshall (@EvoPsycMarshall), a PhD student at the University of Newcastle and member of Darren Burke’s Evolutionary Cognition Lab.

“We were curious about how simple behaviours such as moving the head up or down, and direct eye-contact were able to powerfully affect our perception of others in terms of femininity, masculinity, attractiveness, and dominance. The most extreme real-world example of this can be seen when two fighters face off: they tilt their heads up, and stare down their opponents in order to intimidate them.”

The researchers conducted two studies to further explore this effect while attempting to better replicate the way people move in real life — by showing faces tilting in motion.

Both studies had participants rate software images of faces based on attractiveness, masculinity, femininity, social dominance, and physical dominance.

In the first study, participants rated static images stemming from 5 male faces and 5 female faces that were adjusted into variations of eye gaze and head tilts totaling up to 220 images. In general, head tilt was found to influence all five ratings. As expected, female faces were rated more attractive and more feminine when angled downwards compared to upwards. Additionally, male faces were perceived as more masculine the more the head was tilted upwards. However, the attractiveness of male faces was not constant, with male faces peaking in attractiveness when angled slightly downward.

In the second study, researchers showed participants images of faces in motion, moving in one of four variations of “range (top or bottom) and direction (upward or downward).” By showing the faces in motion, researchers hoped for participants to understand that the changes in the faces are due to changes in viewing angle. They wanted to see if this knowledge would influence subjects’ ratings.

Interestingly, range of movement and direction of movement had an influence on ratings of femininity but not masculinity. Faces moving in a downward motion were rated as more feminine than faces moving in an upward motion.

The authors say, “pitching the head upward or downward can affect ratings of femininity, but not masculinity. Contrasting this with the static stimuli results implies that it is the featural configuration of a face that determines the level of masculinity perceived regardless of other factors.”

“A lot of us have probably experienced the uncomfortableness of being stared directly in the eye, or having someone ‘challenge’ us by simply tilting their head up and looking down their nose at us,” Marshall told PsyPost.

“So, intrinsically, we’re all quite familiar with how these behaviours work. But, as with everything human – these behaviours are complicated and depend on who is doing them. It matters which sex they are, whether you think they’re attractive or not, and as we speculate in the article, it probably matters how tall they are.”

As the authors say, inferences are limited by the fact that participants in both studies were unaware of the height of the targets they were looking at. This led researchers to an important question for future studies. “When a participant is asked to rate the behavior of a face that is pitched up (or down),” the authors muse, “are they making their rating based on the belief that the face belongs to someone who is taller (or shorter) than them and is gazing down (or up) at them or the belief that the face belongs to someone of similar height who has tilted their face up (or down) while  maintaining gaze?”

“Our studies focussed on the question of ‘what do these behaviours do?’, and we were able to answer that to some degree. But what we still don’t know is how they work. One possibility is that they are working on an emotional level, similar to the way smiling communicates friendliness. While another option that we’re actually looking into now, is that head pitching affects the perception of the height difference between individuals,” Marshall explained.

“There’s also some variables we didn’t consider in our studies, such as the relationship context between people as they communicate. We fully expect that our results would be different if the people know each other already or if they are in a romantic relationship.”

The researchers suggest that future research continues to use dynamic stimuli rather than static faces to increase the ecological validity of the findings.

“Although these behaviours are used somewhat unconsciously, they can still be used consciously to adjust how we want to be perceived. Several of our friends and colleagues have commented on how they now notice that when people take selfies, men tend to tilt their head up, and women tend to tilt their head down, presumably because this is how they think they look their best. We’re not sure if these observations are true, but we think it would be interesting to do some research to see if they were,” Marshall said.

The study, “Human Face Tilt Is a Dynamic Social Signal That Affects Perceptions of Dimorphism, Attractiveness, and Dominance”, was authored by Peter Marshall, Amy Bartolacci, and Darren Burke.