About Face: How First Impressions Fool Us
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?”
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