Why do we make snap judgments based on facial appearance?

As children, many of us are warned not to judge a book by its cover. Yet, as adults, people frequently jump to conclusions about the character traits of strangers based on their facial appearance. These first impressions are striking in that they are often based on stable facial features – such as the shape of someone’s nose or the distance between their eyes – as opposed to facial behaviours like smiling, frowning, laughing or shouting.

First impressions can exert an influence in various areas of our lives. Research suggests that, when we think politicians look competent, we’re more likely to vote for them. When we think someone looks untrustworthy, we’re less likely to offer them employment or lend them money, and more likely to think they’re guilty of crimes. First impressions of people of colour formed by police officers and the judiciary can have fatal consequences.

The influence of face-based first impressions on behaviour is particularly troubling given evidence that they are typically inaccurate; there appears to be little or no relationship between individuals’ actual psychological traits and the ones that others attribute to them based on their facial features. The distorting effects of racial stereotypes on impressions of intelligence and aggression are well documented. Research also indicates that face-based judgments of trustworthiness do not predict how individuals perform in economic games designed to measure trustworthiness. Similarly, judgments of CEOs’ leadership ability based on their facial appearance do not predict their performance.

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