How Our Faces Are Judged By Others

Photographed By Winnie Au.
While we've come a long way since the days when we actively believed that we could assess personality based on facial features, appearance-based bias — or "face-ism" — is alive and well. A spate of studies over recent years has confirmed that attractive employees out-earn their more homely counterparts, for example, and that teachers dole out better grades to good-looking students. In a just-released paper in the journal Trends in Cognitive Science, researchers led by Christopher Olivola, PhD, assistant professor of marketing at Carnegie Mellon, demonstrated that we evaluate others' faces to determine whether they possess four traits: competence, dominance, extroversion, and trustworthiness.
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The researchers' analyses of past studies unearthed undeniable links between facial structure and success in a range of contexts. Trying to rise to the upper ranks of a company or win an election? You'd better hope you have a "competent"-looking face. If you'd like a promotion in the military, look "dominant." If you're trying to exude an air of popularity, an "extroverted" face comes in handy. And, if you are on trial, you're best off with "trustworthy" facial features.
Click through to the next page to see what "competent," "dominant," "extroverted," and "trustworthy" faces look like, in that order from top to bottom, and going from "least" to "most" from left to right (as based on computational models used by several research groups).
Image: Courtesy Of Christopher Olivola.
Face-ism can help explain why certain individuals are selected for certain positions or fare better in courts of law, but — surprise, surprise — facial structure doesn't actually predict how well an employee will perform, or whether a defendant is, in fact, innocent. And, let's not forget those with faces that look "social" who would prefer to spend a night at home with a book than at a party (those with Resting Bitch Face, meanwhile, can attest from personal experience that looks and personality don't necessarily align). While these non-links can sound obvious, the reality is that our unconscious judgements of others' faces help determine the people we hire, elect to office, assume are popular, and even convict of crimes.
So, what are members of a face-ist society to do? The researchers advise that knowledge is (decision-making) power. One hopeful finding that the paper highlights is that when people are equipped with more information, they're less likely to rely on appearances when forming conclusions; for example, while voters with little political education are inclined to vote for whichever candidate looks the most "competent," educated voters are more likely to select the candidate who actually is the most competent. In other words, cold, hard facts can still win out against the sway of first impressions.
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