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Cultural-Historical Psychology

Publisher: Moscow State University of Psychology and Education

ISSN (printed version): 1816-5435

ISSN (online): 2224-8935


License: CC BY-NC 4.0

Started in 2005

Published quarterly

Free of fees
Open Access Journal

Affiliated ISCAR


Face-symbols as psychological tools

Meshcheryakov B.G., Doctor in Psychology, Professor at the Psychology chair, The «Dubna» University, Dubna, Russia,

Keywords: cultural-historical theory, human face, face symbols, attractiveness

Column: Theory and Methodology

A Part of Article

The first part of the article gives a theoretical analysis of the possibility to regard human face as a study subject in the cultural-historical psychology. The author presumes that face is a complex symbol and the origin of various secondary symbols that have their own history in the world culture. Not only masks, portraits, caricatures, photographs etc can be regarded as symbols, but the real face itself can also be considered such. Regarding face as symbolic mask of soul is typical both of physiognomic tradition that lasted for several centuries and of modern sociopsychological discourses and researches on impression formation and managing, image-making, self-presentation and so on. However, one may come up against some terminological tricks connected with polysemy of the word ‘face’ (for example, ‘at face value’ etc).

The fact of polysemy and the danger of mixing up terms require bringing in additional tentative definitions and term explanations. First of all, it is necessary to distinguish three types of face-symbols: 1) real face is a primary symbol; 2) pictures and images of faces are secondary symbols; 3) verbal portraits are tertiary symbols. Along with these external factors (or rather artifacts), one should distinguish internal face-images (percepts, images-notions, imagination images, verbal portraits). At last, it is necessary to bring into consideration several phenomena that are close to the meaning of the word ‘face’ used by social psychologists, though it is only a part of the problem concerning the sociocultural functions of face. Therefore, we will use a broad term ‘face-effects’ corresponding to the various psychological outcomes that can be achieved by means of face-symbols. Face-effects refer to the mentioned ‘face-images’ and also to more or less general evaluations of one’s qualities, for example, to his/her physical attractiveness (good-lookingness), mendacity, credibility, intellectuality, age, health, and other personality characteristics. What other effects of human faces can be of practical and theoretical interest?

The fact that schematic faces turned out to be suitable means of integral representation of multidimensional information (Chernoff H., 1973, 1977) is extremely interesting from the point of view of the cultural-historical psychology. Furthermore, we presume that face-symbols can be effectively applied in psychotherapy; and what is most important, it is the psychotherapeutic orientation that opens the promising perspective for new directions in fundamental and applied researches on psychological effects of face-symbols within the framework of the cultural-historical psychology. The use of human faces in advertisements, logotypes, and trademarks is a social practice in which the resources of human faces’ powerful psychoenergy are constantly tested and which is of considerable interest to the cultural-historical psychology as the source of problematic facts.

Let’s review our thesis on the appropriateness of regarding face as a psychological tool in detail. One can doubt this interpretation at least because of the following three circumstances: first, face is not an extrasomatic thing; second, it is not artificial to the full extent; and third, it is a part of the body that has its own physical (biophysical) functions.

The article gives the arguments that support the thesis on regarding face as a psychological tool. A long time ago Plotinus stated that “the entire body is only the instrument of the soul” (Plotinus). Both logically and empirically this characteristic can be as well applied to face. But in regard to face the word ‘tool’ (or ‘instrument’) becomes ambiguous, because apart from the biophysical functions (sensory, protective, absorbing, etc), face is ‘overweighed’ with functions (e.g. communicative, aesthetical, psychotherapeutic) that, as a matter of fact, are connected with the notion of psychological tool (Vygotsky sometimes used synonyms, such as ‘sign’, ‘stimulus-means’, ‘auxiliary means’).

The fact that the same object or body organ not only has the functions of psychological tool, but is also a material (physical) tool, was, according to Vygotsky, a rule on the early stage of cultural-historical development. He stated that first psychological tools were at the same time material (or physical) tools. This was exactly what he meant when he wrote: “The history of labour and the history of speech can hardly be understood without each other” (vol. 6, p. 84). To illustrate this, he referred to a slightly inappropriate ethnographic example of a stick used in agricultural labour (tools that were used in agriculture cannot be regarded as typical of early stages of anthropogenesis).

The situation is resolved when we think, as F.T. Mikhailov describes it, that “tools and objects of work, and all other objective factors that are created in the working process, — these are the main material means of human communication. In the aggregate they represent ‘the language of real life’, that is, the certain sign system, every sign (object) of which unites people, controls their behaviour, and guides their activity” (Mikhailov F.T., 1976, p. 212). In addition to this, we can presume that human face (and not a cobble or a stick) was the first psychological tool, and this, of course, does not contradict the idea that physical and psychological functions are combined in face. Interestingly, human face as psychological tool is, unlike objects of work that evolve in the process of cultural-historical development, a genuine cultural universal.

Thus, theoretical analysis given above brings us to the univocal conclusion that it is possible — and necessary — to consider human face to be psychological tool, and, therefore, to be a worthy subject for the culturalhistorical psychology. This conclusion represents our support for V.P. Zinchenko’s euristic idea that face should be included in the list of seven basic mediators of one’s spiritual development (Zinchenko V.P., 1997).

The second part of the article gives a brief review of results obtained in ontogenetic, sociopsychological, and neurophysiological researches that are relevant to the author’s hypothesis that eyes (in comparison with nose and mouth) play the most important role in various face-effects and, in particular, in assessing one’s physical attractiveness. It seems like Plotinus understood this a long time ago: “Even here, on Earth, eyes are often more eloquent that words...” (Plotinus, 1995, p. 81).

It is known that most people, while communicating with others, pay attention to their partners’ faces, mostly on their eyes that act as the primary centre of face perception, and it is probably connected with the fact that in face scanning there is a clear top-down tendency in one’s eye movements (Haig, 1986).

The habit of looking at partner’s face and noticing changes of expression on his/her face develops gradually, starting from the first weeks after birth. As it was shown in Robert Fantz’s studies, newborn babies show to take great interest in the patterns in the human face. Recent studies discovered that just several minutes after they are born, children prefer to look at pictures showing faces (e.g. Slater, Johnson, 1998). And what is most amazing, children aged 2-3 months prefer to look at attractive (from adults’ point of view) faces than at unattractive, judging by the length of their look (Langlois et al., 1987).

Many researchers point to a whole range of characteristics that increase the attractiveness of face. Among these are: symmetry, averageness, childlike (neonatal) facial features (babyfaceness), smile, size of pupil, hair on head and face, hairstyle, etc.)

According to ethologist R. Ahrens (1954), newborn baby’s smile is an innate reaction generated by perception of a structure consisting of two eyes that serves as releaser stimulus. This biological base of social reaction was indirectly proved by neurophysiologic researches that revealed the presence of neurons reacting to human faces in the inferotemporal cortex of monkeys (e.g. Yamane et al., 1988). Analysis of the correlation between face characteristics and neuron responses showed that neurons detect the combinations of distances between parts of face, that is, between eyes and eyebrows, and between eyes and mouth.

At last, one more evidence in favour of our hypothesis comes from researches that consider pupil size a factor of face attractiveness (Hess, 1972; Tomlinson и др., 1978; Cunningham, 1986).

These facts are of a certain support to us in putting forward a hypothesis that different parts of face play different roles in assessing one’s attractiveness, and, in particular, that eyes play the most important role in this process. This problem was as well the subject of our research (Meshcheryakov, Yushchenkova, Cultural-Historical Psychology, № 1 2006) in which we used a method of assessing the attractiveness of faces that were shown full-face and in parts, which allowed us to use multiple linear regression to test the hypothesis.

As we mentioned before, attractiveness assessment is only one of the many face-effects. Therefore, it is necessary to examine the psychological role of eyes more carefully. As a final point, let us outline several questions that are related to our hypothesis. Why is eyes area the first to be hidden if one wants to disguise his/her identity? Which part of face best allows one to recognize familiar faces? Which part of face writers and poets describe most often and in more detail? On average, which part of face draws most attention during the first meeting and which part of face consumes most of one’s time and resources in preparation for meeting with other people? And finally, which part of face is most often associated with emotional content (for example, happy, sad, cunning, angry ... eyes)? The eyes-hypothesis that we put forward gives a simple and, in some cases, evident answer to all these questions. Anyhow it can serve as a stimulus for further interdisciplinary investigations.  

For Reference

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