Selecting people based on physical appearance is as old as humankind. Mates were selected based in part on physical features. People were hired because they were stronger.
This seems like an odd approach to selection for many jobs today because physical characteristics are largely unrelated to the competencies required to perform the job, although there are exceptions (e.g., firefighters). But employers have always been motivated to select based on who would succeed (and/or make them money), and many have been interested in the use of gross physical characteristics to help them decide: who's taller, whose head is shaped better (phrenology), etc. The general name for this topic is physiognomy.
Of course nowadays we have much more sophisticated ways of measuring competencies that are much more related to job success, including things like online simulations of judgment. But this doesn't mean that people have stopped being interested in physical characteristics and how they might be related to job performance. This is due, in part I think, to the powerful hold that visual stimuli has on us as well as the importance of things like nonverbal communication. We may be a lot more advanced in some ways, but parts of our brain are very old.
The interest in judgment based on physical appearance has been heightened by the introduction of different technologies, and perhaps no better example of this lies with facial feature analysis. With the advent of facial recognition technology and its widespread adoption in major cities around the globe, in law enforcement, and large sporting events, a very old idea is once again surfacing: drawing inferences from relatively* stable physical characteristics--specifically, facial features. In fact this technology is being used for some very interesting applications. And I'm not sure I want to know what Facebook is planning on doing with this technology.
With all this renewed interest, it was only a matter of time until we circled back to personnel selection, and sure enough a new website called FaceReflect is set to open to the public this year and claims to be able to infer personality traits from facial features, already drawing a spotlight. But have we made great advances in the last several thousand years or is this just hype? Let's look deeper.
What we do know is that certain physical characteristics reliably result in judgment differences. Attractiveness is a great example: we know that individuals considered to be more attractive are judged more positively, and this includes evaluative situations like personnel selection. It even occurs with avatars instead of real people. And the opposite is true: for example it has been shown that applicants with facial stigmas are viewed less favorably.
Another related line of research has been around emotional intelligence, with assessments such as the MSCEIT including a component of emotional recognition.
More to the point, there's research suggesting that more fine-tuned facial features such as facial width may be linked to job success in certain circumstances. Why? The hypothesis seems to be two-fold: certain genes and biological mechanisms associated with facial features (e.g., testosterone) are associated with other characteristics, such as assertiveness or aggression. This could mean that men with certain facial features (such as high facial width-to-height ratio) are more likely to exhibit these behaviors, or--and this is a key point--they are perceived that way. (By the way, there is similar research showing that voice pitch is also correlated with company success in certain circumstances)
Back to FaceReflect. This company claims that by analyzing certain facial features, they can reliably draw inferences about personality characteristics such as generosity, decision making, and confidence.
What seems to be true is that people reliably draw inferences about characteristics based on facial features. But here's the key question: are these inferences correct? That's where things start to break down.
The problem is there simply isn't much research showing that judgments about job-relevant characteristics based on facial features are accurate--in fact we have research that at best the accuracy is low, and at worst shows the opposite. To some extent you could argue this doesn't matter--what matters is whether people are reliably coming to the same conclusion. But this assumes that what drives performance is purely other peoples' perceptions, and this is obviously missing quite a lot of the equation.
In addition, even if it were true that peoples' perceptions were accurate, it would apply only to a limited number of characteristics--i.e., those that could logically be linked to biological development through a mechanism such as testosterone. What about something like cognitive ability, obviously a well-studied predictor of performance for many jobs? The research linking testosterone and intelligence is complicated, some indicating the reverse relationship (e.g., less testosterone leading to higher cognitive ability), and some showing no relationship between facial features and intelligence in adults--and again, this is primarily men that have been studied. (While estrogen also impacts facial characteristics, its impact has been less studied)
Finally, the scant research we do have indicates the link between facial features and performance is true only in certain circumstances, such as organizations that are not complex. This is increasingly not true of modern organizations. Circling back to the beginning of this article, you could liken this to selection based on strength becoming less and less relevant.
One of the main people behind FaceReflect has been met with skepticism before. Not to mention that the entire field of physiognomy (or the newer term "personology") is regarded with skepticism. But that hasn't stopped interest in the idea, including from the psychological community.
Apparently this technology is being used by AT&T for assessment at the executive levels, which I gotta say makes me nervous. There are simply much more accurate and well-supported methods for assessing managerial potential (e.g., assessment centers). But I suspect the current obsession with biometrics is going to lead to more interest in this area, not less.
At the end of the day, I stand by my general rule: there are no shortcuts in personnel selection (yet**). To get the best results, you must determine job requirements and you must take the time required to get an accurate measurement of the KSAOs that link to those requirements. It's easy to be seduced by claims that seem attractive but unfortunately lack robust research support, after all we're all susceptible to magical thinking, and there is a tendency to think that technology can do everything. But when it comes to selection, I vote less magic, more logic.
* Think about how plastic surgery or damage to the face might impact this approach.
** As I've said many times before, we have the technology to create a system whereby a database could be created with high-quality assessment scores of many individuals that would be available for employers to match to their true job requirements. The likelihood--or wisdom--of this idea is debatable.