Behavioural ScienceChloe De Schryver

Beyond Face Value: Why Faces Matter

We are all guilty of this. Our friend comes back from a first date and our first impulse is to ask, "Show me a picture!"


No matter how much our friend tells us about their date's charity work and their adorable pet poodle, we feel that, until we have seen their face, we do not really have valuable insight into their character. 

Beyond Face Value

The belief that faces offer a window into personality dates back as early as the 1700s, when a book written by the Swiss philosopher Lavater, popularised  physiognomy- the belief that a person's personality can be inferred from their facial features.

This belief took such a stronghold that Darwin was almost denied access on his legendary voyage to South America. The captain, an ardent believer in physiognomy doubted that a person with Darwin's nose shape would possess the character and determination for such an arduous voyage.

We all feel we now know better and wouldn't make judgments based on something so arbitrary. But have we really come as far as we think? Or have we simply replaced the 'science' of physiognomy with a modern, less explicit variant? 

Recent research shows this may be the case.

2CV attended a talk by social psychologist Alexander Todorov that showed just how much value we attribute to faces, and how automatically we do this. 

In one study, people were asked to rate the trustworthiness of faces after being exposed to them for very short (less than a second) and longer periods. Results showed that people not only consistently rate the same 'types' of faces as being less trustworthy than others (if you have high eyebrows and prominent cheekbones, congratulations, you are more trustworthy than your furrowed brow, sunken-cheeked counterparts!), they do this really quickly. So quickly in fact, that the faces weren't even consciously processed. It didn't matter if people were exposed to the face for milliseconds or seconds, their judgments remained the same.

Why do we do this?

The majority of us see hundreds of faces on a daily basis and have fleeting interactions with most. Instead of seeing each person as the unique snowflake they are, our brain chooses the path of least resistance and relies on automatic processes to judge personality traits.

Scientists believe these snap judgments are an important part of our evolutionary past- a way to decide whether to approach or avoid. This might explain why neutral faces that have a subtle resemblance to happy expressions are judged as more trustworthy than those with subtle resemblance to angry faces when neutral.

While this effect might be partly rooted in our evolutionary history, culture plays a large role too. For example, we tend to prefer faces that look 'familiar' to us and most closely resemble our 'in-group'. Research has even found that stereotypes about a particular group are automatically activated when we perceive a face belonging to that group.

What are the consequences? 

Research has shown that politicians with more 'competent' and 'trustworthy' faces are much more likely to win elections. Simply asking people pre-election which of the candidates has a more trustworthy face has been a reliable predictor of election outcomes.

Another study revealed that faces of black men were more likely to be perceived as angry or violent, even when their facial expressions were neutral. The negative portrayal of black men in the media is likely responsible for this effect. The disproportionate reporting of crimes committed by black men perpetuates negative stereotypes and ensures these associations remain fresh in people's minds.

What can we do about it? 

Not a whole lot unfortunately! Our brain avoids the taxing work of making anything other than snap judgments upon first impression.

However, merely being aware that we do this may help us to override our automatic attributions and force us to pay more attention to more tangible markers of personality.

From a research perspective, these studies point to the importance of capturing instinctive responses as well as asking people to explain their opinions. They often won't be able to articulate what sits behind their response (even though they'll try to when asked). We use both explicit and implicit tools to get to the 'why' - going beyond what people say they think and do and taking a closer look 'behind the scenes' of behaviour.  

Click here for a closer look at 2CV's thinking in this space.


Chloe De Schryver

2CV London