The question has fascinated psychologists for years: Do people’s faces look the same in long-term relationships?
Evidence that they originated in the 1980s and have made it into psychology classes since then. In the decades that followed, however, the observation was never scientifically confirmed or refuted.
Now researchers at Stanford University in the US have thrown modern technology on the problem. After analyzing thousands of public photos of couples, they believe they can finally settle the matter.
“It’s something people believe in, and we were curious about it,” said Pin Pin Tea-makorn, a PhD student at Stanford. “Our first thought was that if people’s faces converge over time, we could look at what kinds of functions they converge on.”
Working with Stanford colleague Michal Kosinski, Tea-makorn searched Google, newspaper anniversary announcements, and genealogy websites for photos of couples taken at the start of their marriage and many years later. From this, they created a database of images of 517 pairs that were taken within two years of the knot and between 20 and 69 years later.
To test whether couples’ faces became the same over time, the researchers showed the volunteers a photo of a “target” accompanied by six other faces, one of which was their spouse, with the other five faces chosen at random. The volunteers were then asked to rate how similar each of the target’s six faces was. The same task was then performed by state-of-the-art facial recognition software.
In the original 1987 study, the late University of Michigan psychologist Robert Zajonc had volunteers rated the photos of just a dozen couples. He concluded that the faces of couples became more alike as their marriages progressed, and the happier they were, the bigger it was.
The explanation, psychologists have argued, is that sharing of life shapes people’s faces, with diet, lifestyle, time outdoors, and smile lines all playing a role.
However, in scientific reports, Tea-makorn and Kosinski describe how they found no evidence that couples looked more alike over time. However, they looked more alike at the beginning of their relationship than random pairs of people.
The results suggest that celebrity couples like Benedict Cumberbatch and Sophie Hunter as well as Gisele Bündchen and Tom Brady will no longer look the same over time, but have opted for partners with characteristics similar to themselves. Tea-makorn said people might look for similar looking partners just as they look for friends with values and personalities that match.
The study demonstrated the importance of going over previous studies and reviewing their validity. “This is definitely something that the field needs to update,” said Kosinski. “One of the main problems in the social sciences is the pressure to come up with new, amazing, and timely theories. This is how you get published, hired, and hired. As a result, the field is filled with concepts and theories that are being reclaimed, overhyped, or not properly validated. “
Kosinski praised Tea-makorn for taking on the project, as many scientists refused to “rock the boat” and uncover possible shortcomings in the work of other researchers. “Cleaning up the field may be the most important challenge facing social scientists today, but she certainly won’t get as many citations or recognition for her work as she would get if she came up with something new and eye-catching,” he said.
One of the researchers’ next projects is to investigate claims that people’s names can be predicted with any degree of accuracy from their faces alone. “We are skeptical,” said Kosinski.