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Face it -- 'reading' people's features is a mug's game

The Globe And Mail
Shannon Rupp

VANCOUVER — Mark Ainley is giving the expression “taking it at face value” a whole new meaning.The Vancouver man teaches workshops on how to divine someone's character, intelligence and values by his or her visage: People with higher eyebrows are reserved. Low eyebrows signal someone outgoing. Upturned noses suggest gullibility; downward pointing noses imply a critical temperament.

“The face is the map of your brain,” Mr. Ainley claims. “It's not about judging people — it's about discernment. When we accept that everyone sees things differently because of the way they're structured, then we can let go of judgment.”

He is quick to add that the technique he calls Structure-Function is intended to help people understand others and communicate, and has nothing to do with discredited face-reading techniques such as physiognomy and phrenology — which were used to support racism or convict “natural-born” criminals.

Instead, he explains his results in New Age terminology: “One of the things coming out now ... is that there's no clearly defined, structured reality,” he says. “We are all interpreting the information, sort of the quantum soup of information, through our personal filters. What we usually don't realize is that our actual, physical structure influences how we see the world.”

Mr. Ainley believes that faces can change as behaviour changes. Or the other way around. He recalls a client whose weak chin became more prominent after dental surgery; she believed she had become more determined. He says his own thin upper lip — the sign of someone reluctant to speak his mind — has grown plumper since he began this career four years ago.

His résumé is also getting beefier. Vancouver's The Georgia Straight and CBC Radio's Early Edition both gave Mr. Ainley's teachings enthusiastic coverage. The Pacific Palisades Hotel in downtown Vancouver has had him do readings for corporate clients and is considering a staff workshop.

“He was a big hit,” Pacific Palisades spokeswoman Katharine Manson says, adding that his work would complement the enneagram personality typing that the San Francisco-based Kimpton chain already uses.

(An enneagram, according to the Skeptics' Dictionary, is a nine-line drawing that uses mystical properties of 7 and 3 to determine someone's personality.)

Kathleen Ross, owner of the hotel's MBody Wellness Spa, is also considering Structure-Function training for her staff: “It's absolutely fascinating: My reading was extremely accurate and there were numerous people coming

away saying, ‘Wow!' ”

But Barry Beyerstein, a psychology professor at Simon Fraser University, says Mr. Ainley is just giving ancient superstition a New Age spin. He says face reading falls under the rubric of “sympathetic magic,” which also includes astrology, handwriting analysis, palmistry and homeopathy.

“That's the belief that like begets like. So if you have a piggish face, you are a slovenly, brutish person,” Prof. Beyerstein says. “If you have forward-slanting writing, you're a forward-thinking person. It's all based on superstition, and it simply doesn't work.”

Mr. Ainley took a one-week face-reading course at Three in One Concepts in Burbank, Calif. He says his knowledge is based on a 1950s study that connected 45 physical traits with personality traits, to 99 per cent accuracy.

Prof. Beyerstein allows that peddlers of “New Age balderdash” genuinely have faith in their magic. “In my experience, these charlatans are sincere — they're true believers.”

As for Mr. Ainley's enthusiastic clients, Prof. Beyerstein says they're in the sway of the “Barnum effect” — named for legendary huckster P.T. Barnum — which causes people to see themselves reflected in generalizations, if they have been told a reading is tailored to them.

“These people aren't stupid, or gullible,” says Prof. Beyerstein, a frequent debunker of sham sciences. “The Barnum effect works on everyone.”

Michael Kenny, an SFU anthropology professor, echoes Prof. Beyerstein's views, adding that widespread misunderstanding of science — such as quantum physics — often triggers a resurgence in pseudoscience. Thinking that phrenology had died in the early 20th century, he was amused to hear that it was back with a twist.

“It's impressionistic, so it's always going to be related to cultural stereotypes,” Prof. Kenny says.

“But this ‘Structure-Function' sounds like a raiding of modern neuroscience — the localization of cerebral function is reflected in the internal structure of brain. But they are connecting it to the New Age belief in the perfectable self. It's the power of positive thinking to change your face.”

Elizabeth Dunn, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia, studies happiness and self- knowledge. She thinks people are seduced by sympathetic magic because it gives them “perceived control,” which is crucial to emotional well-being.

As for the ethics of selling illusion, Prof. Dunn notes that much of the marketplace deals in unproven products. “Makeup. Weight-loss plans. The users might even get some true benefit from the perceived control that comes from these products,” she says, adding quickly that she doesn't endorse useless products even if they make some buyers feel good.

But then, she's not the target market for Vancouver's growing network of businesses selling the illusion of control under such buzzwords as “values-based” and “social responsibility.” Mr. Ainley is just one of more than 100 “sustainable” businesses that each paid $870 to be included in an upcoming book marketing their causes and services.

“As you may know, authors are automatically esteemed as experts,” publisher Jaime Kowal writes in her sales pitch. “After being authored and published in Waking Up the West Coast: Healers and Visionaries, you too will gain the advantages of being an author in your area of expertise.”

The book's subjects range from the Vancity Credit Union to a psychic, a tarot-card reader and the Hollyhock Retreat Centre, a Cortes Island getaway that runs workshops on what scientists would call magic. And the University of British Columbia has “partnered” with Hollyhock to bring some of these alternative thinkers to town.

For instance, Rupert Sheldrake, a botanist who believes people can influence others by looking at or thinking about them and affecting the “morphic field,” will be speaking at UBC's Robson Square campus on July 20.

But scientists still have influence in some circles. On hearing the academics' criticisms of face reading, Kathleen Ross decided to do more research before using it in her spa.

Meanwhile, another Ainley student, Grace Barkley, is annoyed that her 56 years of life experience would be questioned. “In my experience, this works, and it gets my dander up when experts and professionals say it doesn't — they never tried it,” she says. “They say they do research, but they never ask the right questions. They don't talk to the people who use it.”

8 Jul 2006