Meet Face-ism: How We Make Decisions Based On Others' Looks

We really are shallow when it comes to making judgements about people based on how they look.

Research shows people associate specific facial traits with an individual’s personality.

Faces which appear more feminine or naturally happy are judged to be more trustworthy. The following graphic breaks down the categories in model from the Tepper School of Business:

Faces generated by data-driven computational models of evaluations of (A) competence, (B) dominance, (C) extroversion, and (D) trustworthiness. The face in the middle column represents an average face in the statistical model. Faces in the right column are 3 standard deviations (SD) above the average face on the respective trait dimension; faces in the left column are 3 SD below the average face on that same dimension. Image: Trends in Cognitive Sciences, Olivola et al.

People also consistently associate competence, dominance and friendliness with specific facial traits.

According to an article in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences, people rely on subtle and arbitrary facial traits to make important decisions, from voting for a political candidate to convicting a suspect for a crime.

The researchers call it face-ism and they created the above faces to test people’s reactions.

“Although we would like to think our judgements and choices are rational, impartial, consistent, and solely based on relevant information, the truth is that they are often biased by superficial and irrelevant factors,” says Christopher Olivola of Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business.

Numerous studies have shown that people form impressions of aspiring leaders based on their faces and that these superficial impressions predict important social outcomes.

Political candidates with naturally competent looking faces are more likely to win elections and having a naturally dominant face predicts rank attainment in the military.

The bias to rely on facial appearance to make decisions can also lead to serious consequences in the legal system and financial realm.

People are more likely to convict those who look untrustworthy or guilty, while having a trustworthy face strengthens an individual’s ability to attract financial investments and get loans.

Although face-ism is widespread, research suggests that it could be reduced by arming people with more relevant and valid types of information.

“We need to guard against letting our choices be biased by superficial cues,” Olivola says. “In some contexts, educating people might be sufficient to reduce facial stereotyping. In other contexts, however, more research will be needed to identify the best way to mitigate the biasing influence of facial appearance.”

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