It turns out that drivers of aggressive sports cars and big trucks may be compensating for more than their physical anatomy: Scientists say people who buy cars with wide front ends could be expressing their desire to appear dominant.

Research published Tuesday in the Journal of Consumer Research suggests that people like to buy products, such as cars and watches, with wide faces since those products convey some sense of dominance. The authors of this study found that consumers rated cars and watches with wide faces high in measures of dominance, which translated to high desirability.

Our brains have curious ways of interpreting faces. Previous research shows that humans process objects that sort of look like faces as, well, faces, and that humans typically prefer narrower faces — as measured by face width to height ratio — since they’re perceived as friendlier and less dominant. These new findings indicate that this doesn’t hold true for material possessions, though, since people see the things they buy as extensions of themselves. As such, consumers seem to prefer products with wider faces that will intimidate others.

face widths
Researchers confirmed previous studies: People find wider faces more dominant.

This runs counter not only to what we think we know about facial preferences, but also to the notion that consumers buy products due to quality or even luxury status.

“Beauty and functionality might not cover the whole picture of product design, and consumers might also (unconsciously) see and want design features to signal their own dominance,” Ahreum Maeng, assistant professor of marketing and consumer behavior at University of Kansas, tells Inverse.

In this way, a car or watch, which could serve as extensions of the self, can help consumers compensate for attributes that they feel they’re missing.

bmw diagram
Researchers found that consumers rate cars with wider front ends as more dominant, and therefore more desirable.

“The key contribution of our research is to demonstrate … that consumers purchase those designs to leverage traits they lack (or they need),” says Maeng. This fits with long-held understandings of consumer culture, in which consumers select products that best express their inner longings, as well as the ideals and traits they aspire to.

To do this, Maeng and her co-author Pankaj Aggarwal, professor of marketing at University of Toronto Scarborough, conducted five experiments with online participants to measure how people perceive the dominance of human faces and the faces of non-human products, as well as how those factors affect their opinions and desires.

They found that participants rated wider faces and wider-faced objects similarly dominant, and they found that consumers are willing to pay more for products that they perceive as dominant.

Maeng says that she would like to build on these findings by investigating whether marginalized people and groups seek products that signal dominance.

She also indicates that the dynamic observed in this study could change down the road with the growing industry of self-driving cars. After all, if you’re not behind the wheel, then the car would not be as much of an extension of your self.

“If that were so, then how might this difference in perceived locus of control influence consumers’ preferences for the automobile, and in particular the face-ratio?”

Abstract: A product’s front face (e.g., a watch face or car front) is typically the first point of contact and a key determinant of a consumer’s initial impression about the product. Drawing on evolutionary accounts of human face perception suggesting that the face width-to-height ratio (fWHR: bizygomatic width divided by upper-face height) can signal dominance and affect its overall evaluation, this research is based on the premise that product faces are perceived in much the same way as human faces. Five experiments tested this premise. Results suggest that like human faces, product faces with high (versus low) fWHR are perceived as more dominant. However, while human faces with high fWHR are liked less, product faces with high fWHR are liked more as revealed by consumer preference and willingness to pay scores. The greater preference for the high fWHR product faces is motivated by the consumers’ desire to enhance and signal their own dominant status as evidenced by the moderating effects of type of goal and of usage context. Brand managers and product designers may be particularly interested in these findings since a simple design feature can have potentially significant marketplace impact, as was also confirmed by the field data obtained from secondary sources.