The question has puzzled psychologists for years: Are the faces of people in long-term relationships starting to look alike?
Clues that they emerged in the 1980s have since been incorporated into psychology classes. Yet in the decades that followed, the observation was never scientifically confirmed or disproved.
Today, researchers at Stanford University in the United States have thrown modern technology at the problem. After analyzing thousands of public photos of couples, they think they can finally settle the issue.
“It’s something people believed in and we were curious about it,” said Pin Pin Tea-makorn, a doctoral student at Stanford. “Our first thought was that if people’s faces converged over time, we could see what kinds of features they converged on.”
Together with his Stanford colleague Michal Kosinski, Tea-makorn scoured Google, newspaper anniversary notices and genealogy websites for photos of couples taken early in their marriage and many years later. From these, they compiled a database of photos of 517 couples, taken within two years of marriage and between 20 and 69 years later.
To test if the couples’ faces grew similarly over time, the researchers showed the volunteers a photo of a “target” person accompanied by six other faces, one being their spouse, the other five faces being chosen at random. The volunteers were then asked to rate the similarity of each of the six faces to the target individual. The same task was then performed by cutting-edge facial recognition software.
In the original 1987 study, the late psychologist Robert Zajonc of the University of Michigan asked volunteers to classify photos of just a dozen couples. He found that the couples’ faces looked more alike as their marriages continued, with the effect being greater the happier they were.
The explanation, according to psychologists, is that life sharing shapes people’s faces, diet, lifestyle, time spent outdoors, and laughter all having a role to play.
However, in scientific reports, Tea-makorn and Kosinski describe how they found no evidence that couples are more alike over time. However, they looked more alike than random pairs of people at the start of their relationship.
The results suggest that celebrity couples such as Benedict Cumberbatch and Sophie Hunter, and Gisele Bündchen and Tom Brady, will not be more alike over time, but instead opt for partners with similar characteristics. Tea-makorn said people can look for like-looking partners just like they look for partners with matching values and personalities.
The study highlighted the importance of looking back on previous studies and checking their validity. “This is definitely something the peloton needs to update,” Kosinski said. “One of the major problems in the social sciences is the pressure to come up with new, startling and interesting theories. This is how you are published, hired and established. As a result, the field is filled with concepts and theories that are scooped up, over-excited, or poorly validated. “
Kosinski praised Tea-makorn for taking on the project, as he said many scientists were reluctant to “move the boat” and reveal potential flaws in the work of other researchers. “Clearing the field is perhaps the biggest challenge facing social scientists today, but she surely won’t get as many citations or recognition for her work as she would get if she came up with something. something new and flashy, ”he said.
One of the researchers’ next projects is to investigate claims that people’s names can be predicted with any precision from their faces alone. “We are skeptical,” Kosinski said.