Whatever you do, and whoever you are, there will always be someone willing to judge your face. First impressions are formed in a tenth of a second. A protruding jaw, competent and aggressive. Big round eyes, slow, naive, unintelligent. We all do this unconsciously, but some people infer faster and more lapidary conclusions from facial features than others, according to a study by a group of Japanese researchers published by the Royal Society.
Abraham Lincoln is credited with one of the best-known commonplaces on this subject. They say that he was looking for a person for his cabinet and rejected the candidate with this sole argument: “I don’t like his face.” One of his advisers tried to make him see that this person was not responsible for his face, but Lincoln disagreed: “Any human being over 40 has the face he deserves.”
Nobody gets rid of believing that their first impressions are the most accurate, but there are those who do not even allow themselves to doubt them. The Japanese study published in November ensures that some people have a very marked tendency to quickly judge others based on their facial features. These people are also usually extreme in their judgments, whether they are positive or negative. According to this research, in a job interview your skills could be judged in a tenth of a second from, for example, the definition of your jaw, a circumstance that, except in cases of surgical intervention, is usually more defined by genetics. than by will.
fast and extreme
“Both thoughtful and impulsive individuals are subject to these biases. Our main finding has been to show that those who make more extreme judgments about a person’s trustworthiness based on facial features also tend to make quick conclusions about other characteristics such as competence,” writes Atsunobu Suzuki, lead author of the investigation.
If these people occupy a key position in a company, their decisions can change the lives of those who come across them and put their faces as their first letter of introduction. The researchers concluded that today there is an “exaggerated impact of facial features on social decision-making processes.”
“Our studies have shown that first impressions are determined by global features of the face—a multiple combination of facial features—rather than regional or racial characteristics. For example, happy, feminine-looking faces tend to be perceived as more trustworthy than tough, masculine-looking ones,” explains Suzuki, adding that people draw their conclusions from the general impression of a face rather than from specific features such as the size of the nose or the thickness of the lips.
Although the study has not shown that women are perceived as less competent than men, Suzuki points out that a girlish face and feminine appearance are judged as incompetent.
None of this works for normative hotties, who are favored by the halo effect that has been well established in other studies. “Attractive faces are perceived as desirable and attributes of trustworthiness and competence are usually immediately assigned to them,” explains the researcher.
Predictable and difficult to change
The psychologist Alexander Todorov, with a professorship at Princeton University, is one of the researchers who has investigated the most into the value of first impressions. He says these snap judgments are “predictable” but almost always wrong. And what is even worse, he assures that those first impressions are very difficult to change.
In 2005 he published an article in the magazine Science where he demonstrated that it was possible to predict a substantial percentage of the results of an election using the snap judgments that were made on the faces of the candidates. Todorov regrets that in the last ten years we have been experiencing a strong return to physiognomic theories, precisely those that maintain that it is possible to read a person’s character or temperament from their appearance.
in his book Face value: The irresistible Influence of First Impression, Todorov sends a central message: every day we record many first impressions and we rely too much on them. “Those first impressions are not usually stable predictors of what will happen in the long term,” he writes. The psychologist points out that, just as people and institutions are very aware of discrimination based on race, gender, sexual orientation or age, they are not so aware of prejudices around facial appearance, regardless of race and gender. “There are similar discriminations based solely on facial features, and if we are not aware, those appearance biases will have an impact on how people interact in the real world,” he explains.
First impressions have a psychological function and help to understand what may be happening here and now. “The problem is when it is believed that they are useful to reveal what a person is like,” Todorov warns. In his book he explains that in evolutionary history most of the time human beings have not needed to use physical appearance to judge their fellow men: “Humans used to live in extended families and did not associate with more than 100 people. It was very easy to know who was who.”
When we begin to live in modern states where millions of strangers live together, a cognitive problem appears because there are no clues to know what a stranger is like and reliable clues are needed. “Facial features have become that key that apparently unlocks all mysteries,” explains the professor.
From phrenology to selfie
In the book, Todorov acknowledges that relying on first impressions is convenient and practical, even when many mistakes are made. In the 18th and 19th centuries, physiognomy became very popular because it was the time of the great industrial migration, and for the first time large groups of strangers met in cities. The physiognomists promised to discover quickly, literally at a glance, the social origin of each one, their virtues and defects, their weaknesses and strengths.
In 1800 the German neuroanatomist Franz Joseph Gall developed the theory of phrenology, which is now considered a pseudoscience. According to his postulates, it was possible to determine the character, personality traits, including criminal tendencies, from the shape of the skull, head and facial features. It was extremely popular in 19th century Victorian England, but it never caught on in academic circles.
If trusting appearances and judging by face is still very attractive in 2022, it is because in a world where interactions are fast and superficial, and often happen through a screen, the confusion is enormous. A poorly lit face framed by the front camera of a phone or a computer sends a lot of wrong information, but we like to think that some clue will give us about the other.
Which can not be consoled, it is because you do not want. “The face is a great social stimulant, to which we want to give meaning, because today we need clues more than ever in our global societies full of strangers and strangers,” Todorov reasons. This student of first impressions says in his book that he is totally wary of his own: “Especially if I have to make an important decision, I try hard to minimize snap judgment based on someone else’s face.”
The study by Japanese researchers calls for training company staff to identify unconscious biases, including quick judgments based on facial features. If it doesn’t end discrimination, he says, it will at least get some to start doubting their first impressions.
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