Our faces broadcast information about us: whether we’re smart, warm, trustworthy. How do these signals influence decision-making – and are they accurate?
First try our quiz “How well can you read a face?”
NARRATOR: Psychologist Alexander Todorov has discovered the mathematics underlying our first impressions.
Using data he’s collected from thousands of people at Princeton University, Dr. Todorov has built a computer program that can pinpoint the very parts of a face that trigger our gut instincts: that is, whether someone looks aggressive, introverted, attractive, and so on.
See for yourself. As quickly as you can, answer this this question:
Which of these two people is more trustworthy? A or B?
And what about from this pair?
And this one?
This probably wasn’t hard. And in fact, you probably could have done it even faster. Here’s Dr. Todorov:
ALEXANDER TODOROV: You don’t need more than 160-200ms to get pretty much the same first impression that you get from unlimited time.
NARRATOR: This was Dr. Todorov’s first finding: that first impressions are fast.
The second finding is perhaps even more surprising: almost everyone sees the same thing.
Consider the faces you just saw. If you’re like the majority of people in Dr. Todorov’s studies, these are the ones you chose as being more trustworthy.
And what about competence? Just look at this face, created by Dr. Todorov’s software.
The changes to this face are small: the tilt of the mouth, the size of the brow, the distance between the eyes. And yet taken together, these features trigger a judgment. If we’re honest, we’ll admit that this face seems to be gaining and losing IQ points right in front of our very eyes!
We’re all familiar with sayings like “don’t judge a book by its cover” — but we do. And Dr. Todorov’s studies show this, too.
ALEXANDER TODOROV: We did some studies presenting participants faces of politicians, and it turns out that using judgments of naive participants, we can predict about 70% of the electoral outcomes. In a nutshell, politicians who happened to look more competent than their rivals were more likely to win in their elections.
NARRATOR: These findings—which included almost every major congressional candidate for the 2004-2008 elections—are incredible. Campaign promises, advertisements, and experience aside, what really matters is how you look.
And faces don’t just sway who we elect to lead our governments. They also affect who we hire; who we give opportunities to; who we promote.
Now, if everyone sees the same thing when they look at a face, it raises the question: are these impressions accurate? Do people look more competent because they actually are more competent? Do they look more trustworthy because they are more trustworthy?
The short answer is no.
ALEXANDER TODOROV: Often the natural assumption is there must be some kernel of truth in these impressions. But if you look closely at the data, there is very, very little evidence that these judgments are accurate. In many situations, you can ignore completely the face and your judgment will be much better.
NARRATOR: If faces are so misleading, the question, then, of course, is why? Why do our brains do this?
Here’s a popular theory for the case of trustworthiness: We look more trustworthy the more we look… like babies! Large eyes, small chins, round faces – these are the features we love about infants, the most trustworthy creatures there are. So when adults possess these features, we view them as more trustworthy, kind, and honest.
Research tells us that we’re more likely to agree with baby-faced adults; to accept their offers in negotiations. We’re even less likely to convict baby-faced defendants for premeditated crimes… and more likely to give them more lenient sentences when we do.
And what does this mean for the workplace? Are baby-faced employees more likely to get the benefit of the doubt in a workplace dispute? Does the width of your jaw influence your hire-ability?
Clearly, our first impressions can get us into trouble. So let’s talk about how to get around them, and make better decisions. It’s hard: first impressions are fast and they’re automatic. But if we can admit that these judgments happen, we can find simple ways to outsmart our minds.
How many times have you said or heard something like this:
MALE VOICE: I felt like I could trust her as soon as I met her.
FEMALE VOICE: I can really see him in this role.
NARRATOR: When you catch these moments, ask a simple question: Based on what?
Want something stronger? Here’s one senior leader in education’s strategy: “As soon as I meet someone, I acknowledge my first impression in the first five seconds, and spend the rest of the interview trying to prove myself wrong.” Be your own devil’s advocate by challenging your first impressions.
Finally: when applicable, try putting off the face-to-face early on in the hiring process. Focus on hard evidence of skill, talent, and experience that’s in a resume or other objective forms of data as a first step.
We can all be blinded by first impressions, but with regular practice, we can learn to look past the surface.
Faces deceive us: we quickly make assumptions about a person’s character and form assessments of their trustworthiness and competence based on their face.
We make these assumptions automatically and with confidence (even though there’s no actual basis for them).
To outsmart the impact of first impressions, try the following: First, ask yourself what objective and concrete data you are basing your sense of a person’s character on. Take the time to write down this data so you know you have it!
Second, actively challenge your first impressions. Ask yourself, “why do I favor/disfavor this person so much?”
Finally, when recruiting or hiring, try to put off the face-to-face portion of the process until later; rely first on written materials with objective information.
See more demonstrations of how faces influence our first impressions on the Perception and Judgment Lab’s website. Dr. Todorov’s book Face Value: The Irresistible Influence of First Impressions was published in 2017 by Princeton University Press.
“People are convinced that more competent-looking business people are more valuable, and they get higher salaries,’ [Professor Christopher] Olivola explained, even though the companies don’t perform any better under their leadership”. From James Hamblin’s article in The Atlantic: The Introverted Face.
“After his mugshot sent the Internet into a frenzy, the 32-year-old received modeling offers. Fundraising efforts and Facebook groups were created for Meeks”. From the Los Angeles Times’ Veronica Rocha: “‘Hot Felon’ Jeremy Meeks released from federal prison and gets job offers”.
A person’s face can even influence the medical care they receive: when clinicians watched videos of women undergoing painful examinations, Amanda Williams and colleagues found that they were less likely to recommend appropriate pain treatment for those who “looked” less trustworthy. Learn more at “The Conversation”.
Berry, D. S., & Zebrowitz-McArthur, L. (1988). What’s in a face? Facial maturity and the attribution of legal responsibility. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 14(1), 23-33.
Maoz, I. (2012). The face of the enemy: The effect of press-reported visual information regarding the facial features of opponent politicians on support for peace. Political Communication, 29(3), 243-256.
Todorov, A., Mandisodza, A. N., Goren, A., & Hall, C. C. (2005). Inferences of competence from faces predict election outcomes. Science, 308(5728), 1623-1626.
Todorov, A., Pakrashi, M., & Oosterhof, N.N. (2009). Evaluating faces on trustworthiness after minimal time exposure. Social Cognition, 27(6), 813-833.
About Face was created and developed by Mahzarin Banaji and Olivia Kang with funding from PwC and Harvard University.
Narration by Olivia Kang, featuring Professor Alexander Todorov (Princeton University)
Video editing by Evan Younger
Face images and demonstrations courtesy of Alexander Todorov, Social Perception Lab, Princeton University
Music by Olive Musique, Brightside Studio, & Alex Messier via Premium Beat
Stock footage via iStock.com
Artwork by Olivia Kang
Research Assistant: Timothy Carroll
© 2017 President and Fellows of Harvard College