What Our Faces Say About Us
Let us be grateful to the mirror for revealing to us our appearance only
— Samuel Butler
The 19th century English author, Samuel Butler, was famously wrong about how evolution works. Instead of supporting Darwin’s accurate theory of natural selection, he was a Lamarckian, believing that evolutionary change is primarily driven by an animal’s behavior during its lifetime rather than the heritable advantages it is born with. Surprisingly, he may also be a little wrong in his charming quote about our mirror’s revelations.
The first thing we notice about any person we interact with is undoubtedly their face. It is the driving seat of verbal communication and emotional expressions. For that reason, we all make rapid judgments about people we meet based on the appearance of the frontal surface of their head. Could this basic impulse have any reasonable justification whatsoever?
To answer this question, we need to look to scientific evidence on the relationship between facial appearances and character traits. But before talking about any of that, we should exorcize a few demons.
I try to teach through my opinions, through my speeches, how wrong it is to judge people on the basis of what they look like, color of their skin, whether they’re men or women
— Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Any fair and rational person knows that Martin Luther King Jr. and Ruth Bader Ginsburg are right when they tell us to judge people by the content of their character. Beliefs and ideas are what matter, not physical appearances. We should be very suspicious about anyone who denies this. Even if our appearance has an identifiable link to deeper facts about us, that central proposition remains true.
To make this idea clearer, let’s assume that people who wear glasses are smarter on average than people who do not wear glasses (there is evidence that this effect is real, and it may relate to reading experience). Knowing this does not mean that you should assume the next myopic person you meet is smarter than you. You will ideally treat them as the individual that they are; somebody that you do not know yet. Then, as you learn about them, you may find out that they fit the trend or buck the trend. With any group trait that covers a huge range of variability, it would be absurd to use group identity to judge somebody’s character. People with glasses, and people in practically any typical group defined by physical appearance, are too diverse to prejudge.
So we know that we need to judge individual people by the content of their character, but as our myopic genius overlords show, there may still be connections between appearance and behavior at a high level. Faces are central in our social cognition and behavior, so studying their relationship to our characters is an interesting exercise.
As we grow up and interact with people, their judgments about our appearance will undoubtedly affect how we react to them. Their behavior may differ depending on how we look, and that will affect how we behave around them in return. Growing up in a state school in East London, it was clear that similar-looking children would often choose to hang out with each other. The groupings of freaks and geeks were unlikely to be a coincidence (I’m referencing the amazing television series Freaks and Geeks, not using my own labels!). Appearances can impact behavior.
Politics is one clear arena where we need to judge people and form preferences to express at voting booths. When we see politicians’ faces on TV, we cannot help but form automatic opinions about them. Before we know what party they belong to or what their beliefs are, we can see what they look like. Within a single second of seeing political candidates’ faces, we make judgments about their competence, and those judgments predict the outcomes of elections and margins of victory.
As we learn about a candidate’s beliefs, we can of course overwrite prior misconceptions we may have held. But politicians understand the enormous value of looking and speaking a particular way. We elect leaders who we find physically charismatic. President Obama was a great example of that charisma.
Sitting alongside charisma is another political hot button: corruption. A study in September 2018 tested how we see corruption in faces, and examined whether those perceptions had any grounding in reality.
In their first experiment, the researchers presented 82 participants with headshots of unfamiliar federal or state officials in the United States (all officials were men to control for potential differences caused by sex). Of the 72 officials that participants saw, half were convicted of political corruption, while the other half had a clean record. Without knowing this information, participants had to rate each photo along scales of corruptibility, dishonesty, selfishness, trustworthiness, and generosity. Shockingly, for every one of these scales, participants were reading character significantly better than chance, correctly categorizing the corrupt officials around 60–70% of the time. Corrupt officials were judged as more corrupt, more dishonest, more selfish, less trustworthy, and less generous.
In a second experiment, the researchers re-tested this question with photos depicting a new set of 80 elected officials from local and state governments in California. This time, half of the politicians had violated campaign laws according to the California Political Reform Act, and half had a clean record. Once again, replicating the effect from the first experiment, participants were successful in picking out the bad guys purely based on their faces.
In a final couple of experiments, the researchers decided to investigate exactly what facial features were being associated with corruptibility. They found that participants’ negative impressions of corruptible officials were driven by higher facial width-to-height ratios. In other words, wider faces were a signal of potential corruptibility.
The researchers tested this idea more directly by taking the headshots from the first two experiments and photoshopping them to make the faces 7% wider or narrower. They then presented these manipulated photos to participants and asked for corruptibility ratings. The majority of participants failed to notice any differences between manipulated photos of the same politicians, and yet, they rated the same politician as more corruptible when his face was wider rather than narrower. Their judgments were coming from a place buried in their unconscious.
These findings raise important questions about why specific facial features could relate to a behavioral feature such as corruptibility. Unfortunately, those questions haven’t been adequately answered for now. It’s possible that the effects relate to how people treat us. If people believe we are likely to be dishonest or corruptible just because we look a particular way (e.g. a wider face), then they are likely to treat us with some level of contempt. The average person who lacks sainthood will mirror that contempt. Hatred breeds hatred, and corruption breeds corruption.
We should be rigorous in judging ourselves and gracious in judging others
— John Wesley
We are quick to judge people when we first meet them, even though we only have physical appearances to go on. Our face perception abilities are an important biological function. Some evidence suggests that, before puberty, we are better at recognizing adult female faces than the faces of other children or adolescents. During puberty, that recognition advantage shifts toward peers who are at a similar level of development to us. Faces may be important for different reasons depending on our age, but we cannot doubt their immense importance throughout our life.
Unfortunately, much of the time, our face-driven judgments will be inaccurate and will prevent us from using more informative cues about people when meeting them. Labels and character reviews hold major sway in a social world. Social judgments affect social outcomes, including voting choices, legal sentencing, and dating choices. In extreme cases, those judgments can tip over into the worst kinds of overt discrimination, with disastrous consequences for prospective friends at parties and innocent defendants in court.
It may be naive to expect that people can regain control of their jumpy automaticity in social verdicts. Millions of years of evolution have instilled us with an instinct to quickly judge any living thing we see and adjust our behavior depending on our inferences of threat or likability. However, in an ideal world, we need to suppress those immediate urges to judge people based on first impressions. In modern life, they do more harm than good. The information we need about people is never far away. We just need to wait for it with a generous patience.