Here's Why Most Of Us Don't Draw Faces Any Better Than Kids Do

A bizarre mistake hints at a more general flaw in human perception.
JGI/Jamie Grill via Getty Images

Faces are everywhere. You see them pretty much every day for pretty much your entire life. Yet if you were to draw a human face, chances are that you would put the eyes in the wrong place.

Research going back to at least the 1980s, as well as anecdotal reports from art teachers, suggests that over 95 percent of amateur artists place the eyes too high.

The correct place? In the middle of the face.

This odd error may seem of no consequence, but it's striking because humans are generally endowed with highly sensitive neural mechanisms to process and recognize faces. And yet we seem to need a ton of training to accurately reproduce them.

In a new study, published June 6 in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts, psychologist Justin Ostrofsky of Stockton University in New Jersey and his colleagues set out to learn why there seems to be a bias for drawing the eyes too high. "Despite its prevalence, the basis of this bias is currently not well understood," Ostrofsky and his colleagues wrote in their study.

Researchers split 75 undergraduates into two groups and asked each to draw a bald face and a nonbald face, which they copied from images shown on a computer screen.

One group was told before they began drawing that the eyes are typically found in the middle of the face, while the other group wasn't told anything.

An example of the faces that study participants were told to copy.
An example of the faces that study participants were told to copy.
Ostrofsky et al. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts, 2016

Most of the participants placed the eyes too far up the face. But those who were given the specific guidance did this to a lesser extent, suggesting that we make this mistake at least partly because we've never noticed the exact position of the eyes.

But why did some of the participants who were told the correct positioning still draw the eyes in the wrong place? This suggests a general perceptual bias may be at work.

One possibility is that when we're looking at faces, we tend to ignore the forehead and focus on the lower part of the face, which contains more details (a nose, a mouth, a chin, etc.). In other words, we misjudge the length of the forehead area simply because we aren't focused on it.

In the experiments, participants who were not told where the eyes should go were less accurate with eye position when drawing the bald face than the face with hair. The researchers suggest this is because a bald face has an even larger forehead area to ignore, therefore increasing our judgment error.

But the participants who were told about the correct position of the eyes didn’t place those features differently on the bald and nonbald faces -- and remember, they also tended to place the eyes too high. This could mean there's another mechanism underlying their error. One possibility is that they put the eyes up high because humans have a general bias toward the upper half of the visual field.

It’s well known that most people have a leftward bias when they are asked to divide a horizontal line in half (most people mark the midpoint a bit too far toward the left). Multiple studies have shown that a similar problem holds true in vertical space: Most people tend to put the midpoint on a vertical line higher than it actually is, suggesting they focus more attention on the upper half of the visual field.

When the researchers in the new study asked participants to divide a vertical line, they found that errors in line bisection correlated with errors in positioning the eyes when drawing faces.

So what seems to be a simple drawing task appears to be affected by multiple subtle mental quirks. It's also an example of just how bad we are in paying attention to what we see and registering details. Previously, researchers found that people can’t really draw a proper version of the Apple logo, though they've seen it many times. Even when we're great at recognizing certain details, such as the slightest deformations in a circle, we can’t reproduce them.

Not convinced? Just try to draw a perfect circle.

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