On Monday, I posted an article entitled ‘Face up to the facts’ by Tom Wilkinson. It was based on the paper Social influence in human face preference: men and women are influenced more for long-term than short-term attractiveness decisions by Anthony C. Little, Robert P. Burriss, Benedict C. Jones, Lisa M. DeBruine, and Christine A. Caldwell in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior (Volume 29, Issue 2, March 2008, pages 140-146).

Tom Wilkinson writes:

‘Participants were asked to judge the attractiveness and attitudes to sex of the opposite gender from a photograph of their face. This was compared to the real-life behaviour and attitude of the people in the photos – which they revealed in a detailed questionnaire. The experiments found that the men and women taking part could generally judge who would be more interested in a short-term fling just by looking at their expression and features. In one study of 153 participants, 72 per cent of people correctly identified the attitudes from photographs more than half of the time’.

I am interested in this finding of the study: ‘However, further questioning showed that the participants were not always confident their judgment was right’.

This shows that our third-person judgements are fallible. It does not establish the sceptical conclusion that, in judging the attractiveness of the opposite gender in a particular case, we are or could always be mistaken.

Why were the participants not always confident in the rightness of their judgement? One possible answer comes from Wittgenstein and his idea of the ‘imponderability of the mental’ (Philosophical Investigations, II 227-228). According to Wittgenstein, the thoughts and feelings of some people may be mysterious or impenetrable to us, even if they inform us of them. Ascriptions of attitudes (e.g., ‘He is interested in short-term flings’) are typically defeasible; that is to say, contextual, and also require close personal acquaintance. This strengthens the connection between the mind and the facial features. The occasional lack of confidence in our judgements reflects an indeterminancy in our concepts, which is also derived from the complex and unpredictable nature of human beings. Our judgements of a face are diverse and culturally relative. Finally, even those who are able to correctly judge most of the time who would be interested in casual sex from the face may not be able to specify conclusive criteria, since their evidence is ‘imponderable’; that is, it consists of a complex mix of behavior, context and antecedent events.