Martin Shkreli, the widely-despised pharmaceutical CEO who hiked the price of a cancer drug from $13.50 a tablet to $750 overnight, may currently hold the crown for America’s Most Actively Disliked Public Figure.
Last Thursday, Shkreli testified before the House Committee on Oversight. He barely said a word while seated at the witness table, choosing to invoke his Fifth Amendment right to not incriminate himself. Instead, Shkreli twisted his face into every smug smirk imaginable. Each expression was more disdainful and infuriating than the last. A consensus from an already not-thrilled public was reached: Martin Shkreli has the most punchable face in the world. It is almost a wonder to behold.
But why is Shkreli’s face so punchable? Plenty of hated individuals find their appearances ridiculed by the masses, but it’s rare to see such a specific yet universal reaction. Is there a scientific explanation for this phenomenon? Does Shkreli’s face match his personality due to fate alone? Has the evil within distorted his appearance without? To find out, I spoke with Lisa Barrett, a professor at Northeastern University who specializes in the psychology of emotion, and Aleix Martinez, a professor at Ohio State University who studies facial expressions and the emotions that drive them.
Of course there is a German word for ‘a face that needs a punch’
Say it with me now: backpfeifengesicht. It means “a face in need of a fist.”
Barrett does not believe that this quality is “solely based on the structural features of the face,” though nature does play a role. (More on that in a bit.) She referred instead to a concept about emotional experience: In essence, when you don’t experience an emotion as something emanating from within yourself but rather as the property of an external object. “We don’t say, ‘I’m experiencing this apple as red.’ We say, ‘This apple is red,’” Barrett explained. Transfer that to a human interaction, she went on, and “You might not say ‘I’m angry at Bob.’ But you’ll say, ‘Bob is an asshole,’ or ‘Bob has a face in need of a fist.’”
“An emotion is something that you construct in your own brain,” Barrett said, as is perception. Shkreli’s face scans as punchable to so many because of this tendency to “experience the emotion to be a property of the thing in the world and not your own experience.”
This has the neat effect of absolving you, the emotion-haver, of all responsibility for that emotion. It’s not about you wanting to punch someone; it’s about that someone totally needing to be punched.
“When you say Martin’s face needs a fist, it seems as if the feature is out there, in Martin, and it’s objective,” Barrett said. That “motivational” quality is useful, she said. “It justifies action. In lay terms, emotions are seen as sometimes irrational causes of behavior. But if you embed the emotion as a property of the object being perceived, then there’s nothing irrational on your part, and anybody would look at that face and see that he is in need of a punch.”
Considering the reason Shkreli’s face is in the news, “it’s not surprising that people are angry, that they don’t experience their own anger as something relative, like their own reaction,” said Barrett. “They experience it as a property of him and who he is.”
Bad to the bone (structure)
Let’s begin with Shkreli’s bone structure. “This guy has a real, what we call in research, ‘baby faceness,’” Martinez said, which means exactly what you think it means: “a round face, larger eye sockets, sometimes a small nose — which is not the case here — and a short distance between the eyes and the mouth. And what happens is that, when people have this kind of face, we perceive them as less competent and more infantile. So what might be going on here is that people perceive him as a spoiled, really young kid… I’m guessing that if he had a really masculine, aggressive face, he would be perceived as a jerk, period. As being really obnoxious. But no one would say he has the most punchable face.”
Baby faceness alone does not make people punchable — just from an evolutionary perspective, that would make no sense/be catastrophic — but rather, in Shkreli’s case, “if he [looked like] a much older or stronger man, he would be treated very differently.”
“There are physical configurations of a face that, just by their structural features at rest, look more trustworthy or not,” said Barrett. “The general rule is: The more angular a face is, the more it looks like a grown-up face. The more you will experience that person as dominant and in control. The more that people have rounded features, like a baby face, the more you experience that person as submissive, in need of help, not quite responsible for their own behavior.”
So some people have what has colloquially become known as “resting bitch face” — a cool, new term to give women a hard time for not smiling even though this default expression is equally as common in men — to demonstrate that “people have structural features that are perceptually reminiscent of other expressions that we ascribe a lot of emotional meaning to.” We associate frowning with sadness, scowls with anger, smiles with joy, but “people’s faces take on a lot of different configurations” that don’t necessarily align with the emotions we’ve decided they should.
“We are completely unaware that we’re doing it,” Barrett said — that is, judging people based on their not-so-neutral facial expressions — but “it influences our behavior towards them.”
Your bone structure and the placement of all your facial components (eyes, mouth, nose, you get the idea) “are in certain positions that correlate with the positions when you express a certain emotion,” said Martinez. “So you may be perceived as being angrier when in reality you’re just being neutral. So I think his face looks a little angry by default.” “Angry,” by the way, is the closest thing to “smug” that Martinez has researched; “smug” and its siblings, like contempt, have not been defined by these researchers.
Shkreli’s face, Martinez confirms, is probably more punchable than the average.
Can’t feel my face
Shkreli might be at a genetic disadvantage here, but why does he have to make himself even more hate-worthy by smirking so much?
“Some of these smiles are actually nervous smiles,” said Martinez. “You’re not necessarily laughing at someone; you’re actually suppressing anxiety.”
A related possibility: The facial expression we associate with anger, Martinez said, may have an evolutionary basis. Anger “contracts the muscles of the upper face to supposedly protect your eye sockets and your nose in case you get punched in the face.”
That research, he said, goes back to Darwin, who “was wondering why facial expressions of emotion have evolved and how, and one of the hypotheses that has been repeated over the years by many people is that maybe anger was a way to protect yourself from punches in the face.”
Were Darwin here to weigh in on the matter, then, he may well suggest that Shkreli’s face looks punchable because his emotions are causing his face to physically prepare for a punch. A self-fulfilling prophesy.
Shkreli is performing for an audience here, and that element “has a big effect on how your facial expressions will be constructed,” said Martinez. Some people respond to that pressure by “controlling themselves. They try to relax as much as they can, they try to avoid movement and facial expressions. That’s the typical behavior that we have come to expect of people testifying in front of Congress. Hillary Clinton, for example, took quite a hit when she got a little nervous, because people expect whoever is testifying to express as little emotion as possible.”
This is because of a false assumption on the part of the public that people who are expressing emotion cannot simultaneously be rational. “That’s not actually true,” Martinez said. “But we have come to expect this. And some people just can’t” keep themselves in check. “They become agitated, they move around, there’s a lot of body movement, a lot of facial expressions. That’s just who you are.”
These facial expressions, whether or not they’re intentional, are not so hot for Shkreli’s PR. “Yeah,” Martinez said. “He is not helping himself.”
I see what you did there
Is this really about Shkreli’s face? Or is this about Shkreli’s personality, and the baggage everyone who has followed his case has in tow while passing judgment on Shkreli’s expressions? Can both be true?
“Your perception of everything in the world is pretty much your beliefs or predictions corrected by the world,” Barrett said. This might seem judgmental, and it is, but it’s also vital. Our brains are “wired for metabolic efficiency. None of us could really afford to have a stimulus-driven brain.”
“But the thing is that, sometimes, [your brain is] sort of making judgments about what information that’s different can be ignored as error and what information is signal,” Barrett said. “So when you see someone’s face, if you already are anticipating, based on past experience, that they’re going to be an asshole, you’re going to see them as an asshole. Anything ambiguous, you will interpret — and I don’t mean deliberately — your brain will ignore, for efficiency purposes, anything which is a different from the prediction but completely irrelevant to your goal.”
All of this is to say: Your preconceived notions about Shkreli are inextricable from your evaluation of his face, and the punchability thereof. After all, Barrett said, Shkreli “seems like a pretty self-interested guy who is generally disdainful of other people and has a pretty high opinion of himself, [along with] what appears to be a general contempt and disdain for other people who he is harming.”
Also working against Shkreli is that he has “a couple of characteristics that people find really bad,” said Barrett. “He’s making an ungodly amount of money by what many people think of as taking advantage of others in their time of need. So he’s basically seen as somebody who is preying on other people to build his fortune by making a basic necessity unaffordable for the people who most need it, and then being contemptuous of others that he is cheating. So that’s particularly offensive to people, I think. It offends their basic sense of right and wrong.”
Shkreli’s face, and just how punchable it truly is, is one of those great mysteries that science may never crack. We cannot be certain how much of our collective reaction to his smirk is driven by the fact that his face is objectively infuriating and how much is based on what people already know about Shkreli’s behavior, attitude, and actions — which is also objectively infuriating.
Take Shkreli’s smirk, Martinez said. “You see these nervous smiles, you can tell the guy is under stress. He is perceived as laughing at you, or Congress, just because of the context. The context is extremely important in the perception of faces. If that had been in a totally different context, people would have let it slide. But not in this one. As a society, we expect people to behave more professionally in front of Congress, so that’s also part of the context: That people have expectations of how a person like him would have to behave in front of this group, and we are observing the completely wrong behavior.”
It is still plausible that, by genetic fate, Shkreli has wound up with a face with a tendency toward punchability, Barrett said. “But I would not dismiss the predictive aspect of this: That the perceivers’ beliefs about the motives of his behavior are literally changing how they see his face.”