Personology is for Crackpots

Steve has taken time off from getting the new blog ready to bring us news of some credulous reporting on CNN. The reporting concerns some new woo called “Personology” which seeks to determine personality based on various measures of the face and hair. Forensic anthropology and bioarchaeology are concerned with looking at skeletal variation through time and across space so research in these areas are relevant to the claims of personology. Before going further, let’s look at some of the claims of personology.


From the CNN article linked to above:

“A judge in the 1920s developed the system that we use today,” she says. “He initially came up with about 200 traits and then narrowed it down to 68 traits with 92 percent accuracy. It goes across all cultures, so no matter where you are in the world, if you see a certain feature in a face, it is going to mean exactly the same thing in terms of personality.” [bold mine - afarensis]

*snip*

Well, for example, she says “Somebody who has very close-set eyes is very good with detail. They don’t like being interrupted, and they don’t like people being late. They like people to be on time.
“The flip side of that,” she adds, “is they can focus on things that aren’t working till it becomes bigger than life.
A person with wide-set eyes is much more laid back, she continued. “They are the multi-task people. They’re the ones that say, ‘Oh I can do this and I can do that and I can do that as well,’ and because of this behavior, they have a tendency to run late.”

*snip*

Tickle says her method goes by the numbers. “We actually measure the eye to determine the distance,” she says. “We measure the width of the eye, and we measure the space between them to see which is the bigger of the two. And so if the eye is bigger than the space between the eyes, this person is very tolerant and very good with details.”

*snip*

But personology doesn’t just focus on the eyes; the entire face is open for interpretation. Take for example facial width. “The narrow-face individual builds their confidence through knowledge,” Tickle says. “When they get into new situations, there is a lot of hesitancy. But once they know what they are doing, they are off and running, whereas the wide-faced person will be much more self-confident. They are comfortable just winging it.”
And what about our noses, sitting there smack dab in the middle of our face. With noses, shape is the key, Tickle says. “You have to really look at that from the side profile. The Roman-shaped nose is a bossy nose. It likes to be in charge. They are also very aware of costs. How much it costs. ‘Is it worth it? Can I get it for less?’ Those are Roman nose-shaped questions. The ski-jump nose is a monetary carefree nose, one that likes to spend all their money without a care about saving for tomorrow.”

*snip*

Finally, even your hair isn’t immune to some character assassination. Texture is what the personologists look at. “We actually measure that with a micrometer,” she says. “The finer the hair, the more sensitive the person is to taste, touch, smell and sound. If the noise is too loud, a finer-haired person will turn it down.”
People with coarse hair, she says, (“most of your politicians,” she notes) are thicker skinned.

Finally, there is the accuracy factor. According to Tickle, the results are 100% accurate. Let’s start with that first. Forensic anthropologists and bioarchaeologists have come up with a number of ways to determine things like sex, ethnicity, age, and stature from skeletal material. Typically, most procedures range, in accuracy, from the mid 80’s to the mid 90’s. 100% accuracy would be mind boggling, so I am skeptical from the get go. Let’s look at some of the specific traits mentioned in the article, starting with hair. According to Tickle, people with fine hair are more sensitive to taste, touch smell and sound, while coarse haired people are more laid back. Yet according to most studies hair texture is somewhat related to climate. Additionally, according to Alice Brues (from her book People and Races):

The texture of the hair, whether coarse or fine, also varies individually and with race. A majority of Europeans have hair as straight as Mongoloids, but European straight hair is characteristically fine in texture, and Mongoloid hair is coarse.

Does this mean that “Mongoloids” are more laid back than Europeans? What about people of African descent? This kind of thing could lend itself to some really nasty racial stereotyping Let’s look at the bit about the eyes. According to Tickle, people whose eyes are wider than the distance between them are tolerant and detail oriented, conversely people whose eyes are narrower than the width between them are also good with details to the point of obsession, or something. Anthropologists do tend to focus on the midfacial region. We can learn a lot from it. Human anatomy is somewhat plastic and responds to a wide variety of phenomenon such as climate, temperature, humidity, and altitude, among others. It is also impacted by ethnicity, sex, and diet. For example, a change in subsistence from foraging to agriculture can lead to alterations in masticatory function resulting in decreased cranial robusticity and a smaller face (which in turn is oriented more inferoposteriorly to the vault). Additionally, things like limb length and nose height and width follow clinal patterns based on things like temperature and humidity. The end result is that the human form is the result of a complex interplay between environment, ancestry, and recent history (see here for one example of human plasticity).
To make matters worse, there is the quote I bolded above. Tickler claims these associations between behavior and anatomy hold across cultural boundaries! One has but to compare, say, Masai notions of human beauty with the current “Barbie Doll” standard so prevalent in the US to understand the problem with this claim. In addition to climate and ancestry cultural prescriptions also have an impact on the human form via sexual selection, and what sexual selection hasn’t accomplished, human ingenuity will (c.f. cranial deformation). Overall, then, personology is pseudoscientific nonsense that could be misconstrued into racial stereotyping. Shame on CNN for perpetuating this nonsense!

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11 Responses

  1. Phrenology for the 21st century, right down to the racial stereotypes. Lovely.

  2. Damn, my eyes hurt from rolling so hard and so often while reading that. Ouch!
    The illogic and non sequitors are so transparent…do they really need to be pointed out?

  3. Damn, my eyes hurt from rolling so hard and so often while reading that. Ouch!
    The illogic and non sequitors are so transparent…do they really need to be pointed out?

  4. I’ll bet dollars to donuts that the so-called liberal media will use these measurements to tell us how great Huckabee and McCain are, and how lousy Obama or Clinton are. Any takers? Any?
    Didn’t phrenology die a natural death a few decades ago?

  5. Wow. That Tickle idiot really should read Typecasting: On the Arts and Sciences of Human Inequality, by Ewen and Ewen.
    Though that book might be too long, and have too many big words….
    Sorry, I’m typecasting on the basis of ideas expressed by Naomi Tickle in the CNN article.

  6. I so want to get some data to check this on. It’s one of those times when becoming an Evil Statistician seems worth the effort.
    *walks off chortling to himself*

  7. I so want to get some data to check this on. It’s one of those times when becoming an Evil Statistician seems worth the effort.
    *walks off chortling to himself*

  8. As if by magic, Andrew Gelman posted about a very similar topic at the same time.

  9. As if by magic, Andrew Gelman posted about a very similar topic at the same time.

  10. “Personology” used to refer to the study of personality, typically through experimental and correlational methods. Another word lost to idiocy.

  11. “Personology” used to refer to the study of personality, typically through experimental and correlational methods. Another word lost to idiocy.

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