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Plastic Surgery Alters Perceptions of One's Personality

People who underwent facelifts and/or lower eyebrow surgery were more likely to be judged as having certain positive qualities.
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(Photo: Piotr Marcinski/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Piotr Marcinski/Shutterstock)

Ladies: Would you like to be seen by others are more likable, more attractive, more feminine? Would you like to be instantly recognized as someone with excellent social skills who would make a great party guest?

If so, perhaps it's time for some nipping and tucking.

A new study reports that women who had undergone facial plastic surgery scored higher on all of those perceived traits than they did before the operation.

Traditionally, "the conversation about facial rejuvenation surgery has focused on one goal: Youthfulness," a research team led by Dr. Michael Reilly writes in the journal JAMA Facial Plastic Surgery. "However, human beings are judged throughout life based on many other characteristics and personal qualities conveyed by their faces."

Unless these plastic surgery patients simultaneously received a personality transplant, the human tendency to mislabel others based on appearance is confirmed by this study.

The researchers refer to the process as "facial profiling." Their admittedly small-scale study suggests that when one's facial features are altered, so too are those judgments.

The study featured before and after photographs of 30 patients of Reilly and his Georgetown University Medical Center colleague Dr. Steven Davison. They underwent such procedures as a facelift, surgery on the top or bottom eyelids, an eyebrow life, a neck lift, a chin implant, or some combination of the above.

The researchers created six sets of 10 photos apiece, five pre-operative and five post-operative. The patients—all white females—exhibited "well-matched neutral facial expressions."

Then, in an online survey, the photos were viewed and evaluated by volunteers (at least 24 people evaluated each of the sets). They used a seven-point scale to "rate their perception of each of the pictured individuals' personality traits (aggressiveness, extroversion, likability, trustworthiness, risk-seeking, and social skills), attractiveness, and femininity."

The key result: The women viewed after their surgeries were rated higher for femininity, attractiveness, social skills, and likability. They also scored generally better on the other personality dimensions, although none of those increases rose to the level of statistical significance.

Reilly and his colleagues found a facelift and lower eyelid surgery "were the two procedures to show statistically significant changes."

"The eyes and mouth have been identified as key triggers for the emotional response and judgment of an observer," the researchers write. "For example, the corner of the mouth is the diagnostic region for both happy and surprised expressions and plays an important role in the perception of personality traits, such as extroversion. A subtle upturn of the mouth and fullness in the cheeks can make a person look more intelligent and socially skilled. This appearance may explain why patients undergoing a facelift procedure ... are found to be significantly more likeable and socially skilled postoperatively."

"The eyes are highly diagnostic for attractiveness as well as for trustworthiness," the researchers add, "which may explain why, in our patient population, patients undergoing lower (eyelid surgery) were found to be significantly more attractive and feminine, and had a trend toward improved trustworthiness as well."

The study provides additional evidence that we make snap judgments about people's personalities based on facial features "that bear subtle resemblance to emotional expressions," as a Princeton University research team wrote in a 2009 paper.

As both teams of researchers note, there is little evidence that these inferences accurately reflect the personality of the observed face. So unless these plastic surgery patients simultaneously received a personality transplant, the human tendency to mislabel others based on appearance is confirmed by this study.

There's an old saying that "the eyes are the windows to the soul." Maybe so, but it seems our perception of that soul is—metaphorically speaking—based largely on the contour of the curtains.

Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.