Not Just a Pretty Face: Intelligence Perceived Accurately in Men but Not Women

The human face is complex and able to communicate the nature of our sex, health, ethnicity, social rank, attractiveness, political affiliation, and now even the intelligence of the bearer is up for reckoning, but only if they are male.

A study at Charles University in Prague has found that individuals can accurately assess the intelligence levels of a man from their face but are unable to accurately perceive intelligence in a woman’s face.

According to researchers, human beings have the most well-developed facial structures. There is no other mammalian species that can match the expressive function of the human face.

Intelligence Perception Test 

Researchers used static facial photographs of 40 men and 40 women viewed by 160 participants to test the relationship between measured IQ, perceived intelligence, and facial shape.

Male and female participants were both able to evaluate the intelligence of men by viewing their facial shape but unable to judge intelligence from a woman’s face.

Researchers used geometric morphometrics - the qualitative measurement of form - to determine the facial traits associated with the perception of intelligence, as well as those features that are aligned with actual intelligence, as measured by IQ testing.

Facial Features and Perceived Intelligence

According to the findings, faces perceived as highly intelligent have the following features:

  • more prolonged
  • have a broader distance between the eyes
  • a larger nose
  • a slight upturn to the corners of the mouth
  • a sharper, pointing, less rounded chin.

Facial signs of lower intelligence

The perception of lower intelligence is associated with:

  • broader, more rounded face
  • eyes closer to each other
  • shorter nose
  • declining corners of the mouth
  • a rounded and massive chin

The ability to ‘read’ and ‘assess’ individuals intelligence is present in every day social interactions and, according to the researchers, has important evolutionary consequences.

Unreliable IQ Indicators

A perceiver can accurately estimate the real intelligence of men but not women when viewing photographs of faces.

However, the facial clues that indicate intelligence in males do not act as reliable indicators for actual IQ.

The clues were only indicators of perceived intelligence – not actual intelligence. A researcher commented on the findings:

“This means that our raters accurately assessed intelligence from faces of men based on visual cues that simply are not explicable from shape variability in men’s faces.”

Why does perceived intelligence reflect measured intelligence in men but not women?

Three reasons were considered for the discrepancy between perceiving male and female intelligence: (excerpt)

  • One possible explanation is that cues of higher intelligence are sexually dimorphic (different in men and women) and are thus apparent only in men’s faces, e.g. due to some genetic and developmental association to sex steroid hormonal agents during puberty.
  • Another option is that women are pervasively judged according to their attractiveness. The strong halo effect of attractiveness may thus prevent an accurate assessment of the intelligence of women.
  • The third possible explanation is that facial indicators of intelligence are signals rather than cues and that the honest signalling of intelligence is adaptive for men but not for women

The correlation between these geometric traits and perceived attractiveness suggests that there is an intelligence ‘stereotype’ at work when people judge others faces for intelligence.

“These faces of supposed high and low intelligence probably represent nothing more than a cultural stereotype because these morphological traits do not correlate with the real intelligence of the subjects.”



Plos One : Perceived Intelligence Is Associated with Measured Intelligence in Men but Not Women (link to original report).