Some Faces Just Get Away With Stuff

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The face on the left is one most people would rate as untrustworthy; the face on the right is one most would say is trustworthy.

Some people are the unfortunate owners of faces that just look guilty, while others have faces that help them get away with stuff, according to the results of a study led by Brian C. Holtz of Temple University, published recently in the journal Personnel Psychology. In a series of three experiments, Holtz found that people were less likely to blame others who have more “trustworthy” faces. 

More specifically, we judge whether a person’s actions were fair and done with the best of intentions based partially on the facts and partially on whether or not that person has what we perceive to be a trustworthy face. A trustworthy face, as psychologists have determined over years of research in this area, has two major characteristics: The eyebrows are slightly lifted, so that together, they form a kind of upside-down V shape; likewise, the corners of the mouth are also lifted slightly. An untrustworthy face, on the other hand, is the opposite: The eyebrows point slightly downward, forming a shape, and the corners of the mouth are turned down a bit, too. 

Here’s a rundown of the study, from the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest, which first started it:

The first study presented data on an imaginary company to 609 people recruited through an online portal … They were asked to evaluate a decision made by the CEO to cut pay by 15 per cent for all staff (including the CEO himself) in order to avoid cut-backs in tough economic times. Participants felt more trust towards the CEO and judged the decision as fairer when the CEO’s biography included a facial photo previously rated as highly trustworthy rather than an untrustworthy one. 

In the lead-up to this evaluation, participants were asked if there were other solutions to the financial crisis, and if so, if they could have been fairer. When they thought the CEO had a trustworthy face, they were less likely to believe there were fairer alternatives he could have taken. In both this and a subsequent replication, this doubt in viable alternative options mediated how strongly the photo drove trust in the CEO’s behaviour. 

As much as we’d like to believe that our decisions about placing blame are nuanced and thought-through, something as seemingly inconsequential as a person’s facial appearance likely plays a role, too. We’re more superficial than we’d like to think.