Are “Trustworthy” Faces More Attractive?

It depends on whether you’re looking for a short fling or long-term commitment.

Posted Aug 03, 2020

What makes us feel attracted to one person but not another? Although this question has long been considered a mystery, evolutionary psychologists have made a lot of headway over the last several decades, and you can find plenty of discussion about this topic here on the pages of Psychology Today.

For one thing, we may find the same person attractive or not, depending on our relationship goals, that is, whether we want a short fling or a long-term commitment. When it comes to short-term relationships, both men and women place a premium on looks. Women seek men with masculine faces, upper-body strength, and a dominant personality. In return, men seek women with a youthful appearance and signs of sexual openness.

However, the relative value of these traits changes somewhat when men and women look for a long-term partner. Of course, we still want a good-looking spouse, but not at the expense of behavioral cues suggesting the relationship isn't going to work out. In this case, women want a man who demonstrates he’ll be committed to her and her children, while men look for signs that their potential mate will be sexually faithful to them. Looks, then, are only of secondary importance when considering the long term.

One trait that might be important in selecting a long-term partner for both men and women is perceived trustworthiness. Of course, you can only know for sure that a person is trustworthy after a number of interactions with them. Nevertheless, psychologists have identified facial features that people tend to associate with trustworthiness, and they use these cues to make rapid judgments about whether to trust a person they’ve just met or not.

Since trust is the keystone to a successful marriage, could it be that people looking for a long-term partner will find these facial cues of perceived trustworthiness attractive? This is the research question that Portuguese psychologist Mariana Carrito and her colleagues explored in a recent study published in the journal Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences.

Consider the following three faces. Which one looks the most trustworthy to you?

Copyright American Psychological Association. Used with permission.
Which face looks the most trustworthy?
Source: Copyright American Psychological Association. Used with permission.

If you’re like most people, you’ll say that the face on the right looks the most trustworthy.

But what facial features contribute to perceived trustworthiness? Here are the traits that psychologists have identified so far:

  • Eyebrows that are higher at the center of the face than elsewhere. (Notice how the face on the left has the “evil” inverted-V eyebrows typical of cartoon villains.)
  • Pronounced cheekbones.
  • Wide chin.
  • Shallow nose sellion. (That’s the fleshy part where the top of the nose meets the forehead. Notice how the eye region, in general, appears sunken in the face on the left, again a typical feature of cartoon villains.)

Take another look at these three faces. Can you tell that they’re actually all the same face? The one in the middle is the original, and the ones on the left and right have been altered with face-morphing technology to look less or more trustworthy. Face-morphing software is a standard tool in research on interpersonal attraction.

Carrito and colleagues recruited nearly a hundred participants, with roughly equal numbers of men and women, to judge the attractiveness of potential short-term and long-term opposite-sex partners. The researchers predicted that perceived trustworthiness would be important for a committed relationship but not for a short fling.

Each participant saw twenty opposite-sex faces. They could vary the features of each face by moving the computer mouse, and they clicked on the version they found most attractive. Unbeknownst to them, these versions ran along the “perceived trustworthiness” spectrum already described and as illustrated in the picture above. Half of the time, the participants were told they were looking for a short-term partner, and the other half of the time they were told they were seeking a long-term relationship.

As expected, the participants chose a more trustworthy-looking face when they were looking for a long-term partner as opposed to a short-term mate. However, the effect was more pronounced in men than in women. That is to say, the male participants found it very important that a potential spouse look trustworthy, but the female participants gave it somewhat less importance.

One possibility is that trustworthy faces also look more feminine. In other words, it could be that the participants were actually responding to the perceived masculinity or femininity of the faces rather than their perceived trustworthiness. If that were the case, then you would expect the men to prefer more feminine faces and the women to prefer more masculine ones.

However, the researchers also performed one more manipulation, the results of which suggest that the participants were indeed responding to perceived trustworthiness and not masculinity or femininity. Specifically, each participant also responded to a survey intended to measure their degree of social anxiety.

Previous research has already shown that people who are high in social anxiety tend to bias their perception of facial expressions of emotion, interpreting them as more threatening than they really are. At the same time, these people are more sensitive to potential threats. For instance, in one study where faces slowly morphed from neutral to threatening, those high in social anxiety detect the shift faster than their non-anxious counterparts.

Again as expected, participants high in social anxiety preferred faces high in perceived trustworthiness, regardless of whether they were looking for a short-term or long-term mate. Since people with social anxiety are on high alert to hints of threat, they probably feel safer with people who look trustworthy, whether they’re seeking a one-night stand or a life-long commitment. This result also indicates that the participants were indeed responding to perceived trustworthiness rather than perceived femininity or masculinity.

Can we really judge a person’s character from their face? Plenty of research shows that we do in fact do this. But the real question is how accurate perceived traits such as trustworthiness actually are. In all likelihood, there is probably some correlation between facial features and personality traits. For example, among the three faces above, the “trustworthy” face on the right also shows the expression of empathy, while the “untrustworthy” face on the left appears to be angry.

To the extent that people honestly express their emotions on their faces, it’s reasonable to judge someone’s personality on the basis of facial features—if you have no other evidence to go on. However, narcissistic and antisocial personality types are very good at faking these facial features of trustworthiness to take advantage of their victims. In real life, it’s always best practice to judge someone’s personality by their actions rather than their looks.

Facebook image: VanoVasaio/Shutterstock

References

Carrito, M. L., Santos, I. M., Bem-Haja, P., Lopes, A. A., Silva, C. F., & Perrett, D. I. (2020). The attractive side of trustworthiness: Effects of relationship context and social interaction anxiety on face preferences. Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences, 14, 261-269.