How does someone’s face affect our first impression of them?

Taking things at 'face value'

When we see a new person, before they even open their mouth, we often make snap judgements about them; about their dominance, trustworthiness, friendliness or even mental state. Although body language does play a part in this, one of the main ways we do this is their face. In some studies, people made snap judgements (or even had more complex reactions) when shown a face for just a tenth of a second.

In other studies, participants were asked to choose which of two political leaders (neither of whom they had seen before) they thought was more competent. In 70 per cent of cases, the participants’ snap judgements predicted the election outcomes. There was also a relationship between the margin of victory and the difference in perceived competence between two candidates.

One of the ways we make judgements is based on the femininity or masculinity of someone’s face. Possibly due to conditioned gender stereotypes, we tend to view more feminine faces as more trustworthy. We are also more likely to trust people who look similar to someone we already know and like. As well as the physical features of our face, emotional expression plays a big part in someone’s immediate impression of us. The more positive someone’s expression, the more trustworthy we perceive them as being, and vice versa, probably because positive expressions suggest someone open and approachable.

Research has shown that the different judgments we make can be categorised into three ‘dimensions’: approachability (whether they want to help or harm us), dominance (whether they want to help or harm us) and attractiveness (whether they would be a possible romantic partner or a rival).

Although these automatic judgements may seem like something that is deeply ingrained in us as humans, this is unlikely. For most of our existence, we lived in large groups where we already knew almost everyone, so there was no need for these kinds of judgements. Moreover, these first impressions are largely inaccurate, as situational things such as being sleep-deprived or stressed can affect how we look and are completely unrelated to our personality.

So, in conclusion, humans judge each other unnecessarily and inaccurately. But is that anything new?

Ruby V