Owen Churches and his colleagues analysed the personal webpages belonging to 5,829 English-language university academics around the world. They found that engineers, mathematicians and chemists more often posed with their right cheek; English lit. dons and psychologists with their left. "... [M]ost academic psychologists, who may have entered the profession during its arts oriented past, perceive themselves as being more akin to arts academics than scientists," said Churches and co.
The researchers made their observations after choosing 30 universities at random from the 200 listed by the Times Higher Education World University Rankings for 2010 to 2011. When they found scholarly departments where the convention was for academics to present a photo of themselves, they went on to analyse all academic photos to see which cheek was visible. Straight-on photos were ignored. That left 3168 photos for analysis. Consistent with previous research there was a strong effect of sex - women more often pose with their left cheek showing. But the differences between the arts and science academics held even after controlling for this confound. The contrast also survived an analysis that excluded any photos that looked like they'd been taken by a professional photographer.
These new findings build on past research that's shown the left side of the face is perceived as more emotionally expressive than the right; that emotionally expressive people are more likely to pose with the left cheek showing; that, historically, people have tended to pose more often with their left side showing, but older portraits of scientists, in contrast, show them posing more often with their right cheek; and that viewers tend to guess that an unknown academic posing with their right cheek is a scientist, whilst guessing that left-cheek posers are arts scholars. These findings, Churches and his team explained, "suggest a difference in the inward role of the two cerebral hemispheres in the creation and analysis of the emotional display ... ".
In the current study, the general pattern of cheek posing and academic affiliation broke down when it came to fine arts and performing arts - they showed no bias for posing with their left side. The researchers speculated this may be because of their expert knowledge of the history of portraiture.
Critics may wonder about the researchers' interpretation that the posing position of psychologists suggests they identify with the arts. This seems quite a leap from the data that's available. It's also worth noting that there's a huge amount of variation within each academic discipline in posing position. Even among male engineers, for example, nearly 40 per cent posed with their left side facing the camera.
"Academics be warned," the researchers concluded. "We present ourselves to our students and colleagues in our profile pictures and the way we do so may reveal more about ourselves than we think."
Churches O, Callahan R, Michalski D, Brewer N, Turner E, Keage HA, Thomas NA, & Nicholls ME (2012). How academics face the world: a study of 5829 homepage pictures. PloS One, 7 (7) PMID: 22815695
Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.