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Can Cosmetic Surgery Make
You More Likeable?

| January 1, 2016

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Study Finds Facial Rejuvenation Could Change How People Perceive Your Personality

By Judy Latta

We have all heard the adage, “don’t judge a book by its cover,” which encourages us to not pass judgment on others based on their outward appearances. Ideally, of course, this seems like good advice since first impressions are superficial and not necessarily indicative of what exists beneath the surface. Sometimes books with unadorned or worn covers are the most interesting and beloved. Given human nature, however, is this advice actually realistic? According to Forbes Magazine, a first impression is made within the first seven seconds of seeing someone. A report of the American Psychological Association says, “It’s no secret that people often judge each other based on immediate intuitions. We make split-second judgments of strangers all the time.”

Facial Profiling and First Impressions

Facial profiling is a cognitive mechanism we use to gather information to make inferences about a person’s personality and character based on visual cues observed in their facial expressions and features. When you initially encounter another person, your brain subconsciously begins collecting optical data about that person to form opinions regarding his or her personal attributes, such as friendliness, approachability and trustworthiness.

Like it or not, first impressions matter, and one of the primary contributors to the image we project to the world is our facial appearance, particularly in this day and age of ubiquitous social media.

This begs the question: Could cosmetic surgery to improve one’s facial appearance lead to better first impressions related to one’s personality? A study conducted by a research team, led by Dr. Michael Reilly, Assistant Professor of Otolaryngology at the Georgetown University School of Medicine in Washington D.C., seems to indicate that the answer to this question is yes. The team found, through this first-of- its-kind study, that in addition to sporting a more youthful appearance, women who undergo certain facial rejuvenation procedures are often perceived by others to be more likeable, attractive and feminine, and to have better social skills following the surgery.

This study, published by the prestigious Journal of the American Medical As­sociation (JAMA) in its Facial Plastic Surgery publication, included a four-year analysis of pre-operative and post-operative photographs of 30 Caucasian female patients who underwent specific facial cosmetic surgery procedures, including face-lift, upper eyelid-lift, lower eyelid-lift, eyebrow-lift, neck-lift, and/or chin implant. Some of the patients received only one of these procedures, while others received two or more. Each of the patients was photographed with neutral, resting facial expressions, both prior to surgery and following recovery. Six different online surveys were generated using these photos.

For the analysis, 170 study participants rated the pre-operative and post-operative photographs of the patients on a seven-point scale regarding personality traits, including aggressiveness, extroversion, likeability, trustworthiness, risk-seeking, social skills, attractiveness and femininity. In order to avoid recall bias and direct before- and-after comparisons, participants did not see both a patient’s pre-operative and post-operative photographs in the same survey. Ad­ditionally, the participant raters did not know if the patients had received plastic surgery, and were not aware of the purpose of the study.

Significant Findings

The team of four researchers found that, of the eight traits evaluated, four of those traits (likeability, social skills, attractiveness, and femininity), produced statistically significant improvements after cosmetic surgery. Changes in scores for perceived trustworthiness, aggressiveness, extroversion, and risk-seeking were not statistically significant when comparing pre and post-operative scores; however, there was a trend toward improvements in perceived trustworthiness.

The research team observed that having a lower eyelid-lift resulted in the most favorable personality trait reviews. This is fitting, according to Dr. Stephen S. Park, President of the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Re­constructive Surgery (AAFPRS). “The eyes are one of the first things we focus on when interacting with someone, so it makes sense that this facial feature was particularly influential in participants’ personality perceptions,” Dr. Parks says. “Eyes are extremely expressive as our primary way of showing emotion and can have a large impact on resting or neutral facial expression.”

According to the most recent AAFPRS annual member survey, blepharoplasty, also known as an eyelid-lift, has been the third most-requested surgical procedure for women this past year. Most plastic surgeons agreed in the survey that they believed patients wanted this surgery as a means to look less tired and more alert.

Face-lifts resulted in the second most favorable personality trait reviews, the team reported. Dr. Reilly explains, “If the corners of someone’s mouth are turned down at rest, they are not going to be judged to be as likeable or as socially skilled since it appears that they are sad or angry. If the cheeks are full and high, they are going to be perceived as much happier.” According to the AAFPRS survey, rhytidectomy, also known as a face-lift, has been the second most requested surgical procedure for women this past year.

It should be noted that for this study, none of the surgical procedures had a statistically significant negative effect on a patient’s perceived personality. While some patients received increased scores for the attributes of aggressiveness and risk-taking after surgery, those traits were not categorized in this study as undesirable. Dr. Reilly says, “Some might say [those traits are] negative, but others may want that look.”

According to a release issued by Georgetown University announcing this study, these findings are due to more than just superficial human preferences. “The importance of facial appearance is rooted in evolution and studies suggest that judging a person based on his or her appearance boils down to survival,” Dr. Reilly explains, “Our animal instinct tells us to avoid those who are ill-willed and we know from previous research that personality traits are drawn from an individual’s neutral expressions.”

This idea of facial profiling has been around for a long time, but applying it to the field of medicine is relatively new. One of the stated objectives of the Georgetown study was to introduce the concept of facial profiling to the surgical literature.

The Research Team

Georgetown University Medical Center is an internationally recognized academic medical center with a three-part mission of research, teaching and patient care. The patient care component of Georgetown’s mission is delivered through the nonprofit, community-based MedStar Health organization. In addition to Dr. Reilly, the study’s co-authors include Jaclyn A. Tomsic, MD, DMD, and Steven P. Davison, MD, DDS, of Georgetown’s School of Medicine and the MedStar Georgetown University Hospital; and Stephen J. Fernandez, MPH, of the MedStar Health Research Institute.


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