Yes, You Really Do Look Like Your Name


It’s somehow both reassuring and frustrating to be told that you look like your name — like, is my identity really reducible to this moniker that my parents yoked to me? According to some fresh research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, it is — to a degree.

The Israeli-French-American research team ran eight experiments, and repeatedly found that humans — and algorithms — are pretty solid at guessing which names are attached to which faces. As Angus Chen reports for NPR, the random chance for picking the correct answer among a spread of five names would be 20 percent, but participants guessing at strangers’ faces landed on it 35 percent of the time. It’s apparently culture-bound: Israeli participants had good luck with Israeli faces and names, and French with the French, but cross-cultural guesses fell flat. “Israelis apparently had no idea what a ‘Pierre’ looks like,” Chen observes.

The coolest, and also most unnerving, among these experiments was the one with machine learning — the artificial intelligence where an algorithm is fed streams of data and learns the rules within it. For a classic example, you can’t really “program” a self-driving car to drive; it learns how to do it by observing human drivers. (And apropos of this topic, machine learning is how Facebook magically understands what’s in photos, among other things.)

For their experiment, lead author Yonat Zwebner and his colleagues nabbed a database of 100,000 images from a French business-networking platform, which, after some culling, resulted in about 58,000 images for 13 male names and 36,000 facial images for 15 female names. About 80 percent of images were used as a “training” set, leaving 20 percent for a “test” set. The algorithm was then asked to match one of two names to a given face, and did better than chance with every name. (If you’re curious, the least guessable name was Emilie, the most guessable was Laurent.)

It’s hard to say why the faces and names run in parallel, though the researchers reason that it’s a self-fulfilling — or name-fulfilling — prophecy. “Our given name is our very first social tagging,” the authors write. “Each name has associated characteristics, behaviors, and a look, and as such, it has a meaning and a shared schema within a society. These name stereotypes include a prototypical facial appearance such that we have a shared representation for the ‘right’ look associated with each name.” Over time, a Joy will gain smile lines, a Luther will grow stern. “Stereotypical expectations of how we should look may eventually manifest in our facial appearance,” they write.

Yes, You Really Do Look Like Your Name