Patients often undergo facial plastic surgery in hopes of achieving a more youthful appearance, but a study published online Thursday in the journal JAMA Facial Plastic Surgery suggests certain procedures can also impact what people think about patients’ personalities.
“The face seems like a window to someone’s soul … I’m learning that a lot of it is not, but it’s really our window to the world,” lead study author Mike Reilly, assistant professor of otolaryngology-head and neck surgery at Georgetown University, told FoxNews.com.
Reilly and a team of researchers at Georgetown University analyzed how various facial rejuvenation procedures affected how aggressive, extroverted, likable, sociable, and prone to taking risks other people perceived the patients. No matter the type of surgery— facelifts, upper and lower eye lifts, brow lifts, neck lifts and chin lifts— patients who underwent at least one of these procedures tended to be perceived as more trustworthy afterward, revealed the study of 30 white female patients.
“I don’t think of plastic surgery as deceptive, but the idea of altering your appearance then seeming more trustworthy is interesting,” Reilly said. “When your eyes are more open, [you appear] more trustworthy— your parents, like mine, probably told you if you’re making eye contact, you’re not lying.”
Although plastic surgeons have evaluated perceptions of youth and attractiveness based on facial features before, to Reilly’s knowledge, they had never analyzed their effect on perceived non-physical personality traits. Prior study in that arena had been confined to computer science, he said.
Study authors only considered common facial rejuvenation surgeries— not reconstructive surgery— thought to have an impact on the appearance of a person’s neutral, resting expression. Research suggests that people usually draw personality trait inferences from an individual’s neutral expression, which is an idea known as “facial profiling.”
“We’re constantly judging people’s faces— and so many different attributes of them,” Reilly said.
Researchers didn’t consider rhinoplasty, or nose surgery, in their study because that procedure isn’t believed to affect a person’s neutral expression.
All 30 of the participants saw Reilly and study co-author Steven P. Davison, a plastic surgery and otolaryngology professor at Georgetown and a plastic surgeon at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital, between January 2009 and December 2013. Patients received one or more of the surgeries during that time.
One before and after photo was taken of each of the 30 women, and researchers created six different online surveys with them: Each survey consisted of 10 photos, which contained five of the women before surgery and five of the women after surgery. Preoperative and postoperative pictures of the same patient weren’t featured in any given photograph set to prevent recall bias or direct comparison, researchers noted in their paper. About 170 people replied to the survey, wherein at least 24 people rated each photo on their perception of the eight different attributes by using a seven-point scale. Coupled with each photo was a question that asked those surveyed to rate how strongly they agreed or disagreed that a person had any given trait.
Researchers found that having a facelift and lower eye lift resulted in the most favorable personality trait reviews— femininity, social skills, attractiveness and likability— post-surgery. Reilly said that result likely occurred because those surgeries help patients look happier and more awake, and thus more approachable. Previous studies have linked those traits to likability.
None of the surgeries had a statistically relevant negative effect on someone’s perceived personality.
Reilly advised caution in interpreting the study results, as they are limited because researchers did not adjust for the number of procedures any given patient had— and some underwent multiple— as well as due to the study group’s makeup. But he noted his team studied only white females to avoid gender and ethnicity-based bias.
“There’s a whole other conversation about ethnic beauty and a similar discussion about what makes a male attractive, so we wanted to avoid those confounding variables,” he said.
He added that future research would ideally consist of a larger study group, and of men or participants of another ethnicity.
Patrick Byrne, director of facial and reconstructive plastic surgery at Johns Hopkins University, who was not involved in the study, said the study findings serve mostly as commentary to pre-existing literature.
But he said they were notable because, to his knowledge, no previous plastic surgeon has linked facial rejuvenation surgeries sought to improve a patient’s perceived youth to greater perceived trustworthiness.
He said asking those people surveyed to rate the patients’ perceived youth and comparing that against perceived trustworthiness would have been an interesting element for the authors to examine.
“They [the study authors] did a good job controlling for ethnic background in specific procedures, but it would be more powerful to include an estimated age in each set of photographs because the way we perceive faces neurocognitively is pretty complicated— there’s a lot of computing that goes on subconsciously, a lot that’s associated and distinct from perceived age,” Byrne told FoxNews.com.
“What’s fascinating is the process by which we extract information from the human face, and it’s really profound: That’s the take-home message,” he added. “When we take in a face in the subconscious, there’s a lot of data analytics going on and inferences [being made]. If we can use studies like these to become more conscious of assumptions like this, then we can be more sensitive and appreciative of each other’s differences.”