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The Geography of Faces

Neuroskeptic iconNeuroskepticBy NeuroskepticMarch 30, 2012 8:41 PM


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How much can you tell about where someone comes from, just from their face?

The other day I was in London and came across a group of young people in Muslim attire who were waving (or in some cases wearing) a particular flag. I thought it was the Iranian flag, but, I thought, they didn't look Iranian. They looked more like Somalis, but it certainly wasn't the blue and white Somali flag. I decided that maybe they were some kind of pro-Iranian demonstrators, but I later worked out that it was the flag of the unrecognised state of Somaliland.


This got me thinking about how reliable these "they look they're from..." judgements are.

Clearly on a basic level, we can usually tell which continent someone's ancestors were from, in terms of the familiar "races" of Europeans, Africans, East Asians etc. But what about shorter distances?

Could you tell, just from looking at them (and setting aside dress, hairstyle, jewellery etc.) whether someone was from Spain as opposed to France? Korea or Japan? Russia or Germany?

I can only speak for England, but there's certainly a vague but widespread belief that every part of Europe has a distinct 'look'. In the past, people were very fond of talking about that kind of thing; today, we're rather embarrassed by the idea but the belief lives on.

I don't know, but I'd be very surprised if there weren't analogous beliefs in other countries.

But how accurate are these folk beliefs, really?

Supposing you were the world expert on human faces - or suppose you were a supercomputer with face-recognition software and access to Facebook's entire dataset. How accurately could you place someone's origins on the map, on average? To within 1000 km? 100? With what degree of accuracy? In an ideal world, could the ultimate face-placer judge someone as French vs German 75% of the time? 90%? Or only slightly better than chance?

I suspect that if you researched this, you'd find that a supercomputer could do very well, in most parts of the world, but that the majority of actual people are less accurate than they think they are.

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