Which one looks more aggressive? Which one looks more approachable?  Which one has higher earning potential?

What do our faces say about us?  Lauren Bacall said “I think your whole life shows in your face, and you should be proud of that.”  Whether you are proud or not, there it is for everyone to see.  If we wish we had more laugh lines, we should laugh more.

Face reading is the study of how facial expressions and facial structure reveal clues about personality.  Some of these clues are due to nature, one’s inherent facial structure or how the muscles in one’s face naturally go.  Other traits alter the face’s structure over time, resulting in a changed appearance.  Perhaps it’s a scientific basis for the scriptural idea of receiving Jesus’ countenance in our faces after becoming Christians.

Have We (Mormons) Received His Image In Our Countenance?

A study I read this week provided evidence of accurate “Mor-dar,” the ability to spot Mormons. [1]  I previously blogged about my own surprising ability to spot Mormons without being able to fully ascertain why.  Studies showed a 60% accuracy among study participants in being able to identify Mormons.  This accuracy percentage held mostly true for both non-Mormons and Mormons alike (Mormons were slightly more accurate).  Perhaps we are a peculiar people after all.

They certainly could—and in just a glance. While random guessing would yield 50 percent accuracy, as in a coin toss, the volunteers accurately identified Mormon men and women 60 percent of the time. (Mormons themselves were only slightly more accurate.) This means that “Mordar” isn’t foolproof, but it’s statistically significant—about as accurate as the ability to tell if a face looks envious or anxious.

As with other facial reading studies, they dug deeper to find out just what aspects of the face were driving better than average recognition.

To determine what exactly triggers Mordar, Ambady and Rule cropped photos beyond recognition. Some faces had only eyes or hair. Could judges identify Mormons from these features alone? Fail. Others had only noses or mouths. Nothing. Other faces had no features or even an outer shape. Just a patch of flesh, basically. Success.

Why would Mormon skin yield accuracy?  Is it the white and delightsome thing?

“What the judges were primarily picking up,” Rule explains, “are cues of health in the skin.” The tone and texture of facial skin reflects immune function. “We have a system set up to assess others’ health for mate selection and disease avoidance,” Rule says. “This can be co-opted for social purposes as well —such as detecting religiosity.”

Mormons don’t drink or smoke. They enjoy community support, which relieves stress. They live 10 years longer than the average American. Holy Spirit aside, their skin may glow because it’s healthier. While the judges likely knew that Mormons are clean-living, they weren’t consciously aware when categorizing faces that they were associating religious purity with good skin. It was a gut feeling. [3]

Chalk one up for the Word of Wisdom.  Apparently the lardy funeral potatoes and scones aren’t doing enough damage to counteract the positive benefits of not drinking or smoking.

Actually, neither of these guys looks that scary to me.

Aggression and Leadership

The article went on to talk about a predictor of male aggression (and criminality) that I hadn’t read about before, facial width-height ratio.

WHR is the distance measured from cheekbone to cheekbone versus the distance between the top of the lip and midbrow. A high WHR is 1.9 or above. Bill Clinton’s is 2.07; John Edwards’s, 2.38; and Richard Nixon’s, 2.02; compared to John Lennon’s, 1.63, and George Washington’s, 1.65.

Just for curiosity, I tried my hand at calculating the width-height ratio of our current church leaders, and I stack ranked those results from lowest WHR to highest WHR.  Based on my calculations [4], here is how they shake out.  For comparison sake, I’ve included where John Lennon, Bill Clinton and I would rank as well.  Bear in mind that women tend to have a lower WHR than men.  What does WHR predict exactly?

Male face width is also associated with a propensity to deceive. A business school professor now at UC Riverside, Michael Haselhuhn, and his colleague Elaine Wong, discovered that men with high WHRs were three times likelier than their narrower-faced peers to lie to increase their financial gain in hypothetical scenarios: a lottery drawing and a buy-sell negotiation that occurred over email. While most men with high WHRs—60 percent—did not break the rules, this finding is still startling.

Good skin don’t lie.

One of the reasons that high face width can predict a tendency to break rules or deceive is because it is associated with power, although face reading researchers are hesitant to say which comes first:  the power or the face width.  It’s possible that we are conditioned as humans to defer to wider faces (which correspond with higher levels of testosterone and higher aggression) than we are to defer to narrower faces.

Another study explains the connection between power and face width:

men with greater facial WHRs are more likely to retaliate to perceived slights by others and are more likely to act in their own self-interest, even if it means violating another’s trust. . . . We propose that one reason for the aggression and self-interest demonstrated by men with higher facial WHRs is that they feel more powerful. Individuals who feel powerful think and behave egocentrically, and power is often associated with aggressive behaviour.

In turn, we expect that the feelings of power held by men with relatively large facial WHRs will affect ethical judgement and behaviour. Individuals who feel powerful are more likely to act in their own self-interest and feel less constrained by social norms or concerns. Additionally, a general sense of power has been linked directly to unethical behaviour, such as cheating.

While higher WHR can correlate to some negative behaviors, it also correlates with ambition, leadership, and possibly even the financial success of organizations they lead.

firms led by men with high WHRs had superior financial results compared with firms led by men with lower WHRs. Similarly, the undergrads in Ambady and Rule’s experiments guessed with above-chance accuracy which faces belong to Fortune 1000 CEOs and managing partners of the most profitable law firms based solely on how dominant those faces looked.

While masculine-faced leaders may appear more competent, it’s unclear if they really are so. The most profitable firms may simply hire dominant-looking people to be their public face. Equally possible is the self-fulfilling prophecy: Parents and teachers may groom these men from an early age to be leaders, so they see themselves as such, as do others.

As usual, Shakespeare said it best:  “God has given you one face, and you make yourself another.”

My Results

Try to calculate their WHR. I dare ya.

Here’s the stack ranking I got from lowest WHR to highest for our current church leaders, according to my calculations:

  • Eyring
  • Uchtdorf
  • Hales
  • Anderson
  • Monson
  • Packer
  • Scott
  • Oaks
  • Ballard
  • Christofferson
  • Bednar
  • Holland
  • Perry [8]
  • Nelson
  • Cook [9]


What’s the point of this, aside from a party game with parlous results?  We inherently recognize people with wider faces as leaders; we may handle them differently, treating them with awe, deference and fear.  Sometimes that protects us from harm.  Sometimes it’s probably an overreaction.  But given that people earn their faces through years of habit, it is interesting to see the differences our leaders bring to the table.  Possible theories:

  • Do wider faces correlated with “iron rod” types and narrower ones with “Liahona” types?
  • Are leaders with wider faces more dogmatic than narrow-faced leaders?
  • Is this one reason women aren’t viewed as equal in leadership potential, both in the church and in general?
  • How accurate is your Mor-dar?


[1] Like Mordor, apparently one does not simply walk out of Mordar.

[2]  Malcolm Gladwell’s popular book Blink and a book it seems to be based on, The Tell: The Little Clues that Reveal Big Truths about Who We Are, both discuss face reading at length and are worth a read.

[3] Tough pull for those of us who had bad skin.  Maybe we were just crappy Mormons.

[4] I don’t claim expertise at this, so please feel free to try it yourself.  It’s not as easy as you might think.  I used at least two pictures for each one, attempting to get a picture that was not tilted (definitely harder than you might think) and that still bore some resemblance to them today (some of these pictures were obviously taken decades ago).  I included the known WHR individuals into my stack ranking to attempt to achieve more accuracy, but again, this was an amateur attempt.

[5] John Lennon is considered to have a low WHR for a man.

[6] Most women have a naturally lower WHR.

[7] Bill Clinton’s WHR is considered high.

[8] I wanted to see if these change over time, and I found that E. Perry’s WHR has remained very consistent from a young photograph to a more current one. [10]

[9] Interestingly, I got nearly the same result when I did the WHR for Dr. Bunsen Honeydew from the Muppets.

[10] No correlation to the WHR for the hanker for a hunka cheese guy from Schoolhouse Rock, though.  I think it’s more the voice that makes me connect the two.