A face that could get away with anything

First impressions lead to a multitude of assumptions, and trustworthiness is one of them: faces with v-shaped eyebrows and frowning mouths are consistently judged as less trustworthy than others with ^-shaped brows and mouths with upturned corners (this may be related to the former betraying a hidden anger and the latter having positive undertones). Now a study by Brian Holtz suggests that a person’s looks can colour perceptions, not only of how trustworthy their character might be, but of whether their actual deeds are fair and well-intentioned.

In an ideal world, we’d trust people based upon what they say and do, and use that track record to evaluate whether their subsequent actions were in good faith. These new results suggest that often isn’t so –  instead, our superficial impressions influence how we evaluate their behaviour.

The first study presented data on an imaginary company to 609 people recruited through an online portal, all of whom had experience of being in work. They were asked to evaluate a decision made by the CEO to cut pay by 15 per cent for all staff (including the CEO himself) in order to avoid cut-backs in tough economic times. Participants felt more trust towards the CEO and judged the decision as fairer when the CEO’s biography included a facial photo previously rated as highly trustworthy, rather than an untrustworthy one.

In the lead-up to this evaluation, participants were asked if there were other solutions to the financial crisis, and if so, if they could have been fairer. When they thought the CEO had a trustworthy face, they were less likely to believe there were fairer alternatives he could have taken. In both this and a subsequent replication, this doubt in viable alternative options mediated how strongly the photo drove trust in the CEO’s behaviour. This is fascinating and surprising to me – it suggests that a gut feeling, based on physical appearance, could have consequences for how we intellectually review a situation. I should note a third study with a smaller sample, conducted in the context of fairness in university marking, didn’t find this mediating route, but the main effect of facial appearance on trust in a person’s behaviour was replicated.

When we assume that certain facial characteristics can mark someone out as special – more electable, fit for higher rank, or a better captain of industry – these assumptions often become self-fulfilling. But whereas it’s easy to be accepting about the inevitability of some of these effects – people who look imposing will obviously be more imposing – most of us like to believe that perceptions of trust go deeper and are truly shaped by a person’s ethics and actions. Yet the sad truth is, some faces seem to mark one out as an easy scapegoat, while others are able to get away with murder.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org


further reading
Your trustworthiness is judged in a tenth of a second, or less
Want people to trust you? Try apologising for the rain

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.