T Nation

Strength, Fighting Ability Revealed In Faces


Physical Strength, Fighting Ability Revealed In Human Faces

ScienceDaily (Oct. 25, 2008) �?? For our ancestors, misjudging the physical strength of a would-be opponent might have resulted in painful �??�?? and potentially deadly �??�?? defeat.

Now, a study conducted by a team of scientists at the University of California, Santa Barbara has found that a mechanism exists within the human brain that enables people to determine with uncanny accuracy the fighting ability of men around them by honing in on their upper body strength. What's more, that assessment can be made even when everything but the men's faces are obscured from view.

A paper highlighting the researchers' findings appears in the current issue of the Proceedings of the Royal Society.

"Assessing fighting ability was important for our ancestors, and the characteristic that the mind implicitly equates with fighting ability is upper body strength," said Aaron Sell, a postdoctoral fellow at UCSB's Center for Evolutionary Psychology and the paper's lead author. "That's the component of strength that's most relevant to premodern combat. The visual assessment of fighting ability is almost perfectly correlated with the perception of strength, and both closely track actual upper body strength. What is a bit spooky is that upper body strength can even be read on a person's face.

Sell conducted the study with Leda Cosmides, a professor of psychology and co-director of the Center for Evolutionary Psychology; John Tooby, a professor of anthropology and also co-director of the Center for Evolutionary Psychology; Michael Gurven, an associate professor of anthropology; and graduate students Daniel Sznycer and Christopher von Rueden.

The study consisted of four sections, each of which asked the test subjects to assess the physical strength of individuals based on photographs of their faces, their bodies, or both. Subjects were asked to rank the physical strength or fighting ability of the people in the photographs on a scale of one to seven. When the photographs depicted men whose strength had been measured precisely on weight-lifting machines, the researchers found an almost perfect correlation between perceptions of fighting ability and perceptions of strength. "When you see that kind of correlation it's telling you you're measuring the same underlying variable," said Tooby.

They also found that perceptions of strength and fighting ability reflected the target's actual strength, as measured on weight-lifting machines at the gym. In other sections of the study, the researchers showed that this result extended far beyond the gym. Both men and women accurately judge men's strength, whether those men are drawn from a general campus population, a hunter-horticulturalist group in Bolivia, or a group of herder-horticulturalists living in the Argentinian Andes.

Leg strength was measured along with upper body strength in both the United States and Bolivian populations, but the results showed that perceptions of men's strength and fighting ability reflect upper body strength, not that of legs. "That makes sense," said Cosmides. "If, for example, you're trying to lift something really heavy, or run a long distance, your lower body �??�?? your legs �??�?? will also be significant. But for fighting at close quarters, it's the upper body that really matters."

Added Tooby: "Whether people are assessing toughness or strength, it's upper body strength they implicitly register. And that's the critical information our ancestors needed in deciding �??�?? or feeling �??�?? whether to surrender a disputed resource or escalate aggressively."

The researchers suggest that the ability to judge physical strength and fighting ability serves different, but equally important, purposes for men and women. In men, the mechanism is a barometer for measuring potential threats and determining how aggressive or submissive they should be when facing a possible enemy. For women, the mechanism helps identify males who can adequately protect them and their children. Men have a lot more experience with rough and tumble play and direct experience with fighting, yet women are just as good at assessing these variables. The authors also point out that neither men nor women fare as well in assessing women's strength. This is entirely expected because, ancestrally, inflicting violence was mostly the province of men.

"The next step is to isolate what it is in the face that indicates upper body strength," said Sell. He suggests that the correlation may lie in the heavier brow ridge and thicker jaw that result from increased levels of testosterone. "Many studies have been done on the effects of testosterone on the face. There's a good chance testosterone is involved in regulating the body for battle, and men with high testosterone �??�?? those with a heavy brow ridge and thicker jaw �??�?? developed bodies that were more prepared for combat."

"One reason we evolved the ability to perceive physical strength in the face may be that it's where we focus our attention when we look at someone," said Cosmides.

"Even if we are able to see someone's body, we always look at the face. It's so rich in social information �??�?? what a person is thinking or feeling �??�?? and adding the assessment of physical strength is a huge benefit. A person who is angry and strong offers a much greater threat than the person who is angry but weak."

Adapted from materials provided by University of California - Santa Barbara.


No wonder others perceive me as such a pushover. Gotta raise that bench press.


This begs the question.

Would weight training skew this?


I wonder if making a mean face would skew the results.


I have always believed this.

And I don't think weight training would skew the results tremendously because strength has a large genetic component.


I wonder if making a mean face will increase your bench press.


Awesome article, and quite enlightening.


I think this is a good argument for my new training schedule

Mon- Saturday:

bench 10x10
Curls 10x10
face scrunches 10x100


barbell Shrugs 10x10
dumbbell shrugs 5x20
pec deck 10x25


LMAO @ face scrunches!

That'll make ya look mean...hehehe


I'm guessing it does, especially if you stay in a certain weight class. However your hormones do improve slightly with weightlifting so maybe there would be a small difference in face characteristics. But I don't think there would be any significant difference considering superhero jaws is quite rare among weightlifters too.


It worked for max payne, He's kinda badass now after all the face scrunches :smiley:


I would increase pec dec sets to at least 30.


The strength thing is very interesting. I don't really buy the fighting ability thing though. Did the researchers actually gauge the fighting ability of the guys whose pictures were being used?

It seems to me that upper body strength doesn't automatically make one a better fighter, and so it's quite possible that respondents weren't accurately identifying fighting ability. Just in case though, I'll be adding face scrunches to my regimen this afternoon.


How could they actually gauge fighting ability anyways; unless, of course, they set up a kind of Thunderdome where their test subjects would have to fight each other and see who had the biggest balls in the room.


its obvious that a strong or muscular person will look strong in the face due to their leanness, especially in the neck & jaw area. But i dont agree with the fighting ability at all!! I train in an MMA gym, daily, with guys from beginners to top level fighters and the better fighters all have a common aggression level but they all look different.

Some of the bigger more muscular guys just dont have that "thing" that makes them great fighters whereas some smaller or leaner guys just rip through opponents with ease. There is an old saying that is soooo true; "Its not the dog in the fight but the fight in the dog!!"


Agreed, Royce Gracie proved you don't have to be strong to be a good fighter.



It also changes drastically for someone well trained. My genetics didn't gain the weight, I did.


You forgot the size part... "its not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog."


I see alot of people getting their asses kicked.


It has now been proven...most people who can actually lift big weights LOOK LIKE IT.