Washington, November 26 : A statistical analysis has confirmed that many people see human facial features in the front end of automobiles, and ascribe various personality traits to cars.
Published in the journal Human Nature, this is the first study to probe whether cars have faces, an idea that researchers product designers and filmmakers have long toyed with.
"The study confirmed with some rigor what many people have already felt -- that cars seem to have consistent personality traits associated with them, and that this is similar to the way people perceive facial expressions," said Dennis Slice, an associate professor in Florida State University's Department of Scientific Computing.
"The most unique aspect of the study was that we were able to quantitatively link the perception of cars to aspects of their physical structure in a way that allows us to generate a car that would project, say, aggression, anger or masculinity or the opposite traits," Slice added.
As a guest professor at the University of Vienna, Slice joined forces with study's lead author and doctoral student Sonja Windhager to explore the link between perception and the geometry of a car front and its parts.
The researchers asked 40 people to view high-resolution, 3-D computer reconstructions and printed images of 38 actual 2004-06 car models, representing 26 manufacturers from Ford to Mercedes.
They found that 32.5 percent of the participants associated a human or an animal face with at least 90 percent of the cars.
Most participants marked the headlights as eyes, the grill or emblem as the nose, and the additional air intake slots as the mouth.
The participants were also asked to rate each model on 19 traits, including dominance, maturity, gender and friendliness, and if they liked the car.
"In our study, people generally agreed in their ratings,'' Slice said, noting that 96 percent agreed on whether a car was dominant or submissive.
"Thus, there must be some kind of consistent message that is being perceived in car fronts," Slice added.
The researchers revealed that cars scoring high in the so-called power traits had horizontally elongated hoods, pronounced lower car bodies relative to the windshields and more angular headlights that seemed to suggest a frown.
On the other hand, cars perceived as childlike, submissive, female and friendly had headlights with their upper edge relatively close to the midline, and had an upward shift of the car's lateral-most points.
"In this way, the car gives us a big smile," Slice said.
The study also revealed that many participants liked power vehicles best -- the most mature, masculine, arrogant and angry-looking ones.
Slice said that though people would not necessarily buy the kind of car they say they like, the finding spurred some interesting questions for future studies about pedestrian and driver behaviour-do people extend the perception of the car to the person behind the wheel? And does that affect how drivers interact with other cars on the road?
The researchers theorized that, through biological evolution, human brains have been designed to infer a great deal of information about another person -- age, sex, attitudes, personality traits and emotions -- from just a glance at their face.
As a result, people are tempted to see faces even in clouds, stones, and cars.
"The fact that we can so easily see faces in inanimate objects may tell us something about the evolutionary environment in which this capacity arose. Seeing too many faces, even in mountains or toast, has little or no penalty, but missing or misinterpreting the face of a predator or attacker could be fatal," Slice said.