Did You See the Way That Car Looked at Me?

Have you ever felt particularly menaced (or amused) by an approaching car as you crossed in a crosswalk, or as you looked up to see it in the rear-view mirror of your own car? Did you ever think it might be because it felt, strangely, as if an angry (or happy) face was looking at you? Would this alter the way you behaved toward the vehicle?

In a new paper by Sonja Windhager, et al., “Face to Face: The Perception of Automotive Design,” published in the latest issue of Human Nature, the authors, working from the idea that evolution has primed us to be extremely sensitive to the human face (drawing key inferences after a mere 100 ms), wonder if we might not draw similar information from inanimate objects — like cars — that just happen to have seemingly facial features.

For the experiment, they had a group of subjects look at a variety of car models. They were first asked to identify any human features they perceived in the car; more than 60% saw faces in 70% of the cars presented (“they marked eyes in 75.2%, a mouth in 62.6%, a nose in 54.3%, and ears in 38.1% of the cases. Generally, the headlights were marked as eyes. The nose tended to be the grille or the emblem; the additional air intake slots, the mouth.”)

The researchers then “asked people to report the characteristics, emotions, personality traits, and attitudes that they ascribed to car fronts and then used geometric morphometrics to calculate the corresponding shape information.”

They found “that people liked cars most which had a wide stance, a narrow windshield, and/or widely spaced, narrow headlights. The better the subjects liked a car, the more it bore shape characteristics corresponding to high values of what the authors termed ‘power’, indicating that both men and women like mature, dominant, masculine, arrogant, angry-looking cars.”

Why? One reason, the authors suggested, might be that those cars look like powerful people: “The pronounced lower car body relative to the windshield area further resembles the prominent chin reported for dominant-looking people.” Given that much of car design is informed more by aesthetics than function, one suspects designers are playing into these sorts of ideas.

The authors go on to say that they’re not sure whether people buy cars with these characteristics because they really like them, or because a “mature, dominant, masculine, arrogant, and angry impression might therefore be desirable in the daily battles on the roads (crowded intersections, traffic jams).” And further: “Do we judge the car the way we do because of our (maybe stereotyped) impression of its owner, or did the owner decide to buy this car because it communicates the desired characteristics?”

This kind of work has all sorts of interesting implications for traffic. Are we more likely to yield to a powerful looking car, falling under the spell of its influence? Or does the angry vibe get our own blood boiling, and make us more combative? Would we all behave better if our cars looked friendlier? Is there any information we can draw from the rear-ends of cars, given that we spend just as much time looking at those? Do we feel differently towards motorcycles or cyclists because of their cyclopean eye?

What fascinated me the most, given the discussion of the importance of eye contact in Traffic was a subsequent set of eye-tracking studies the authors conducted. Even when asked to look at other features of the fronts of cars, people seemed first drawn to the headlights — i.e., the “eyes,” much in the same way humans do when scanning another human face.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, September 23rd, 2008 at 3:54 pm and is filed under Cars, Traffic Psychology. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

Comments are closed.

Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

Please send tips, news, research papers, links, photos (bad road signs, outrageous bumper stickers, spectacularly awful acts of driving or parking or anything traffic-related), or ideas for my Transport column to me at:

For publicity inquiries, please contact Kate Runde at Vintage:

For editorial inquiries, please contact Zoe Pagnamenta at The Zoe Pagnamenta Agency:

For speaking engagement inquiries, please contact
Kim Thornton at the Random House Speakers Bureau:

Order Traffic from:

Amazon | B&N | Borders
Random House | Powell’s

U.S. Paperback UK Paperback
Traffic UK
Drive-on-the-left types can order the book from

For UK publicity enquiries please contact Rosie Glaisher at Penguin.

Upcoming Talks

April 9, 2008.
California Office of Traffic Safety Summit
San Francisco, CA.

May 19, 2009
University of Minnesota Center for Transportation Studies
Bloomington, MN

June 23, 2009
Driving Assessment 2009
Big Sky, Montana

June 26, 2009
PRI World Congress
Rotterdam, The Netherlands

June 27, 2009
Day of Architecture
Utrecht, The Netherlands

July 13, 2009
Association of Transportation Safety Information Professionals (ATSIP)
Phoenix, AZ.

August 12-14
Texas Department of Transportation “Save a Life Summit”
San Antonio, Texas

September 2, 2009
Governors Highway Safety Association Annual Meeting
Savannah, Georgia

September 11, 2009
Oregon Transportation Summit
Portland, Oregon

October 8
Honda R&D Americas
Raymond, Ohio

October 10-11
INFORMS Roundtable
San Diego, CA

October 21, 2009
California State University-San Bernardino, Leonard Transportation Center
San Bernardino, CA

November 5
Southern New England Planning Association Planning Conference
Uncasville, Connecticut

January 6
Texas Transportation Forum
Austin, TX

January 19
Yale University
(with Donald Shoup; details to come)

Monday, February 22
Yale University School of Architecture
Eero Saarinen Lecture

Friday, March 19
University of Delaware
Delaware Center for Transportation

April 5-7
University of Utah
Salt Lake City
McMurrin Lectureship

April 19
International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association (Organization Management Workshop)
Austin, Texas

Monday, April 26
Edmonton Traffic Safety Conference
Edmonton, Canada

Monday, June 7
Canadian Association of Road Safety Professionals
Niagara Falls, Ontario

Wednesday, July 6
Fondo de Prevención Vial
Bogotá, Colombia

Tuesday, August 31
Royal Automobile Club
Perth, Australia

Wednesday, September 1
Australasian Road Safety Conference
Canberra, Australia

Wednesday, September 22

Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s
Traffic Incident Management Enhancement Program
Statewide Conference
Wisconsin Dells, WI

Wednesday, October 20
Rutgers University
Center for Advanced Infrastructure and Transportation
Piscataway, NJ

Tuesday, March 8, 2011
Ontario Injury Prevention Resource Centre
Injury Prevention Forum

Monday, May 2
Idaho Public Driver Education Conference
Boise, Idaho

Tuesday, June 2, 2011
California Association of Cities
Costa Mesa, California

Sunday, August 21, 2011
American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators
Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Wednesday, October 26, 2011
Attitudes: Iniciativa Social de Audi
Madrid, Spain

April 16, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Gardens Theatre, QUT
Brisbane, Australia

April 17, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Centennial Plaza, Sydney
Sydney, Australia

April 19, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Melbourne Town Hall
Melbourne, Australia

January 30, 2013
University of Minnesota City Engineers Association Meeting
Minneapolis, MN

January 31, 2013
Metropolis and Mobile Life
School of Architecture, University of Toronto

February 22, 2013
ISL Engineering
Edmonton, Canada

March 1, 2013
Australian Road Summit
Melbourne, Australia

May 8, 2013
New York State Association of
Transportation Engineers
Rochester, NY

August 18, 2013 “Ingenuity” Conference
San Francisco, CA

September 26, 2013
TransComm 2013
(Meeting of American Association
of State Highway and Transportation
Officials’ Subcommittee on Transportation
Grand Rapids MI



September 2008

No, you probably won be compensated one million dollars; however, with the right blend of negotiating skills and patience, your efforts will be substantially rewarded!I have seen up to forty thousand dollars added to starting compensation through diligent negotiations. It is a way to significantly raise your standard of living and sense of self, simply by