How do people read faces to judge age or fatigue? This question is explored in the February issue of Ophthalmology, the journal of the American Academy of Ophthalmology.
A recent study led by Peter A. D. Rubin, MD, of the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, used eye-tracking methodology to determine how signs of age or fatigue are assessed. Based on their experiences with patients, the researchers hypothesized that the eye area would be especially important. Social psychology research confirms that an attractive appearance enhances everything from a person's self-esteem to job prospects, and Dr. Rubin's group wanted to learn which facial features are key to a youthful, lively appearance. They assumed this information would be useful to people considering plastic surgery.
Forty-seven young adults (15 males, 32 females) were recruited from student populations in the Boston area; all passed vision screening tests. In each of two sessions a participant viewed photo images of 48 older individuals on a computer monitor equipped with a camera that analyzed infrared reflection from the eye's pupil and cornea to determine duration and direction of the gaze. This device, located in the Brandeis University Emotion Laboratory of Derek Issacowitz, PhD, allowed Dr. Rubin's group to quantitatively measure gaze patterns related to subjective judgments about age and fatigue. The images showed individuals' faces in neutral expressions, photographed under standardized conditions; the faces were divided into "LookZones" for data analysis. After viewing the image for five seconds, the participant clicked a selection on a rating scale. Age was assessed in the first session and tiredness in the second.
In rating age, participants most often looked at the eye region (46%), the nose (19.2%), the forehead (13.3%), and the region between the eyebrows (10.6%). The eye region was also most frequently selected in rating fatigue (44.7%), followed by the nose (18%), forehead (13.7%) and area between the brows (12.3%). Participants also looked longest at the eye region in both assessment sessions, concentrating on the brow and lower lids. Since the eye region represents just 21% of the area of the face, clearly this area is disproportionately important to such judgments. Overall, results indicated a strong relationship between the way facial regions were used in assessments of age and of fatigue. Because static rather than video images were used, the study did not determine whether attention would be drawn toward the mouth during speech. The researchers note that people from age groups other than young adult might assess facial features differently than this study's participant group.
"Our results raise the possibility that aesthetic surgery to the eye region may be an efficient, effective intervention to enhance an individual's attractiveness by reducing how old or tired one appears," Dr. Rubin said. "Apparently, beauty is not only in the eye of the beholder, but also in the eye of the beholdee," he quipped. American Society of Plastic Surgery 2007 statistics list eyelid surgery as the fourth most common procedure performed in the United States. Dr. Rubin's next study will rate age and fatigue perceptions using images of patients before and after cosmetic surgery.
- Huy Tu Nguyen, Derek M. Isaacowitz, Peter A.D. Rubin. Age- and Fatigue-related Markers of Human Faces: An Eye-Tracking Study. Ophthalmology, 2009; 116 (2): 355 DOI: 10.1016/j.ophtha.2008.10.007
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