Face Facts: The Mysterious World of First Impressions

Barack Obama’s image is an aspect he looked after carefully, starting well before his time as President of the United States. Image courtesy of Harvard Law Review

We imagine we are rational people, carefully appraising others on the basis of their individual qualities and merits. But the truth is that we form opinions about strangers in a fraction of a second, before they’ve even opened their mouths, simply on the basis of the way they look—and a lot of the time we get it wrong.

In his book, Face Value: The Irresistible Influence of First Impressions, published this summer, Princeton University professor of psychology Alexander Todorov explains the science of how we jump to conclusions at a glance.

“We form impressions after seeing a face for less than one-tenth of a second,” says Todorov. “We decide not only whether the person is attractive but also whether he or she is trustworthy, competent, extroverted, or dominant.”

The unfair impact of first impressions on diversity, justice and politics

These fraction-of-a-second judgements can have devastating consequences. People who appear untrustworthy are more likely to receive harsher court sentences; politicians who look competent are more likely to get elected, even if the evidence suggests they aren’t. Todorov points out that Philharmonic orchestras, traditionally a very male domain, have seen their female memberships rise dramatically with the introduction of blind auditions, where judges can only hear candidates’ performances without seeing them or knowing their gender.

Blind auditions in top orchestra have helped to bring more diversity, avoiding the traps of preconceptions. Photo: From our article on the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra

Todorov’s book details the extensive research performed in the last ten years on how people respond to faces, including how we attribute personality traits based on facial characteristics. “Positive expressions and a feminine appearance make a face appear more trustworthy,” he explains. “In contrast, negative expressions and masculine appearance make a face appear less trustworthy. We have built models of many other impressions such as dominance, extroversion, competence, threat, and criminality. These models identify the contents of our facial stereotypes.”

But those stereotypes are exactly that. Small, narrow-set eyes and a swarthy complexion are no real indication of untrustworthiness even if having such an appearance gives that impression. Equally, it’s unwise to trust someone simply because they have feminine, smiling features.

A series of studies carried out on UK prison inmates in the 1980s found that, “on average they tend to have more atypical features,” says Todorov. “They tried plastic surgery to fix their features and there were some positive results, with reduced recidivism rates.” This raised the disturbing question of whether looking like a criminal increases your chance of being convicted, or whether being treated like a criminal because of your appearance can push you to become one.

The rise of facial recognition algorithms

Many of us pride ourselves on our gut instincts when we meet someone new. Todorov believes this confidence is misplaced.

“In many cases it’s probably just fantasy,” he says. His former student, Chris Olivola, now a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, conducted a study in which participants had to guess whether the person in a photo was a CEO, in the military or a politician, and then state how confident they were about their predictions. “The correlation between the two is zero,” says Todorov. “There’s basically no relationship statistically between how good you think you are and how good you are.”

Now, we’re now seeing if the machines can do better. Facial recognition technology is a hot topic—and a controversial one. A recent study from Stanford University claims that a new algorithm is astonishingly accurate at identifying whether someone is gay simply from a photograph—getting it right 81% of the time for men. A study from Shanghai Jiao Tong University in 2016, using driving-licence-style photographs, purports to predict with 90% accuracy whether someone is or will be a criminal.

The process from Israeli facial recognition company Faception seek to profile people based on photos of their faces

An Israeli company called Faception promises to draw on “proprietary computer vision and machine learning algorithms” to offer “technology for profiling people and revealing their personality” capable of identifying terrorists and paedophiles. Its target markets include government agencies, security and financial services. With the proliferation of digital imagery and the expansion of face-recognition technology, epitomised by the most recent smartphones from Samsung and Apple using it as an unlocking device, it’s hard not to feel uneasy about all of this.

Indeed, Todorov insists there is no solid science behind claims to match facial types with personalities, and throughout his book he explains the many pitfalls with studies that end up being simply a modern reiteration of physiognomy—a 19th century pseudo-scientific expression of class and racial prejudices.

Why our natural preference for judging fast is simplistic

“A powerful computer algorithm doesn’t in itself make research sound,” Todorov insists. Among the many flaws in these papers, such as the Stanford one, is the use of dating website pictures, which “introduce a serious confounding variable, because self-posted images are a biased sample.” Then there is the fact that “for unfamiliar faces we often cannot tell whether different images of the same person represent one person or many. We also form different impressions from different images of the same person. There is a widespread fallacy that a single image captures our appearance. But it simply doesn’t.”

As suggested by the studies of British prisoners, Todorov points out that “there are many mechanisms that are like self-fulfilling prophecies, driving people with a particular kind of appearance to engage in behaviours that simply reinforce the initial biases.”

Of course, how we react to others is also not simply based on faces. “There are many situations in which body language can overpower impressions or knowledge from the face,” Todorov says. One of his latest studies assesses how confident people appear to be and how perception of this varies with more or less expensive clothing. In fact there are many indicators affecting our interpretation, including “attire, grooming, tattoos… everything that is there and available.”

“The first impression might be negative,” says Todorov, “But it doesn’t mean that’s set forever. We change our minds all the time. You have a first impression, but then you interact with the person, you have a conversation, you end up working together and then you end up liking them. I’m pretty sure everybody can think of such an example. I think the crucial question is, whether in fact we will have this opportunity to receive good information and to change our minds.” A half hour job interview, for instance, is not long enough to overcome powerful initial assumptions.

Todorov cites studies from more than 30 years ago, “to see to what extent unstructured interviews are predictive of professional success, and basically they’re practically useless.” Indeed Todorov is so wary of initial impressions that if it weren’t standard university policy, he wouldn’t interview his graduate students at all.

“You have all the relevant information before they come for an interview. I’ve already made up my mind based on their papers. The fact that somebody’s very anxious and their hand is shaking when they’re drinking water doesn’t mean anything, except that they’re really anxious because it’s an anxiety-provoking, high-stakes situation for them.”

How to give a better first impression

So, given this rather discouraging picture, what can we do to improve the first impressions we convey to others? Amy Cuddy is a social psychologist and Harvard Business School professor author of Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges, published in 2016. An expert in non-verbal communication, she has conducted behaviour studies on students in the ultra-competitive environment of elite business schools. In one of the most popular TED talks of all time, she detailed a study that showed how body language doesn’t just reflect how we feel, it can be used to alter it.

Social physiologist Amy Cuddy explains the power of body language in one of the most viewed TED Talks of all time

Her study found that deliberately adopting ‘power’ positions for just two minutes can temporarily alter hormonal balance. Traditionally ‘masculine’ poses such as sitting down with legs spread wide, leaning over a desk in a dominant way, or raising the arms and lifting the chin in a winner’s pose—essentially postures that take up a lot of space—were found to raise students’ testosterone levels and lower their cortisol levels. This can have a significant effect on confidence and the ability to handle stressful situations.

Cuddy doesn’t recommend casually putting your feet on the table in the middle of a meeting, but a few minutes in the privacy of the bathroom doing an impression of Usain Bolt just after winning an Olympic gold medal might help boost confidence and lower stress. And the more you do it, Cuddly claims, the more likely it is to have a long-term effect, perhaps turning a positive first impression into a lasting impression.

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