Outlandish Stanford facial recognition study claims there are links between facial features and political orientation


A paper published today in the journal Scientific Reports by controversial Stanford-affiliated researcher Michal Kosinski claims to show that facial recognition algorithms can expose people’s political views from their social media profiles. Using a dataset of over 1 million Facebook and dating sites profiles from users across Canada, the U.S., and the U.K., Kosinski says he trained an algorithm to correctly classify political orientation in 72% of “liberal-conservative” face pairs.

The work, taken as a whole, embraces the pseudoscientific concept of physiognomy, or the idea that a person’s character or personality can be assessed from their appearance. In 1911, Italian anthropologist Cesare Lombroso published a taxonomy declaring that “nearly all criminals” have “jug ears, thick hair, thin beards, pronounced sinuses, protruding chins, and broad cheekbone.” Thieves were notable for their “small wandering eyes,” he said, and rapists their “swollen lips and eyelids,” while murderers had a nose that was “often hawklike and always large.”

Phrenology, a related field, involves the measurement of bumps on the skull to predict mental traits. Authors representing the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) have said this sort of facial recognition is “necessarily doomed to fail” and that strong claims are a result of poor experimental design.

Princeton professor Alexander Todorov, a critic of Kosinski’s work, also argues that methods like those employed in the facial recognition paper are technically flawed. He says the patterns picked up by an algorithm comparing millions of photos might have little to do with facial characteristics. For example, self-posted photos on dating websites project a number of non-facial clues.

Moreover, current psychology research shows that by adulthood, personality is mostly influenced by the environment. “While it is potentially possible to predict personality from a photo, this is at best slightly better than chance in the case of humans,” Daniel Preotiuc-Pietro, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Pennsylvania who’s worked on predicting personality from profile images, told Business Insider in a recent interview.