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Why the Look on Your Face May Matter More Than What You Say

Will people trust you? The answer is written all over your face.

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The nonverbal cues you give off during social interactions provide people with ample data on which to base their judgments of you. Making eye contact, maintaining good posture, and smiling are just some of the ways we can control how others see us. If you’ve worked hard at controlling the image you project, and think you’re pretty good at it, you might be discouraged to learn that it may not be what you do but how you look that controls your social impression.

In a move that seems reminiscent of Facebook’s manipulation of newsfeeds to hundreds of thousands of users in June 2014, researchers at OKCupid, an online matching site, similarly controlled the data they recently presented to would-be mates. In addition to providing match-seekers with incorrect compatibility scores of some potential partners—an interesting experiment on its own—OKCupid researchers removed photos from some user profiles, to determine the role of appearance in mate selection.[1]

As you might expect, users chose different partners when people's faces were visible than when they weren't.

We may have already surmised that appearance plays an important role in determining compatibility with a potential mate, and OKCupid's study certainly showed that, but we don’t know enough about its researchers' methods to judge the validity of the findings (and maybe never will).

For harder evidence on the role of the face in judging personality, we can now turn to research conducted by University of Toronto psychologist Raluca Petrican and associates (2014). Citing what they call the “Dorian Gray” effect, they noted that if your personality as a young adult fits the profile of someone who is objectively judged to be attractive, you will actually be physically attractive later in your life. As Shakespeare wrote, “With mirth and laughter, let old wrinkles come,” or as Coco Chanel noted, "Nature gives you the face you have at 20; it is up to you to merit the face you have at 50."

People who are angry and hostile throughout their lives become more likely to look mad even when they’re putting on a neutral face. Genetics may play a role, but over the years, the characteristic expression you wear carves its way into the palette of your face.

If personality affects appearance, then, how does appearance affect the way that we infer personality from a person’s features? Petrican and team evaluated the “Personality at Face Value” effect in their study, gauging personality trait scores of trustworthiness, dominance, and attractiveness based solely on facial appearance.

As a test of the Dorian Gray phenomenon, the participants were older adults, with an average age of around 70, amply old enough for their personality to have carved its effect, if any, on their faces. Moreover, the participants were married couples (a total of 51), which also gave the researchers the unusual opportunity to have spouses rate each other's personality, as well as having participants rate themselves. After all, you may think you’re the most agreeable person in the world, but your spouse’s daily observations may provide a very different impression. The whole truth may lie somewhere in between, but the important point is that "other-ratings," as these are called, do provide important personality data, especially when the “other” knows you very well.

The study's findings showed that, in accordance with previous research, people who are rated as attractive are also rated as being more trustworthy. However, the effect wasn’t limited to ratings of strangers: Even spouses were more likely to trust their own spouses who they perceived as attractive. In addition, people’s ratings of their own extraversion, or outgoingness, were also related to their facial ratings. If you agree with self-ratings that suggest you’re outgoing, you also seem more pleasant to others. A lifetime of smiling produces a face that appears more pleasant, both to your spouse and also to someone who doesn't know you not at all.

The flip side, as Petrican and colleagues suggest, is that if you appear less trustworthy, you may be more likely to have negative relationships with others. Not only does this occur early in a relationship but also (considering the age of the couples in the study) across the decades of adulthood. Consider what happens when a person who appears untrustworthy—due to his or her facial appearance—actually does become angry. In contrast to a partner who seems more pleasant and, hence, trustworthy, he or she will seem more hostile. You’ll have worse arguments with a partner whose ordinary appearance, even when feeling fine or neutral, gives off vibes of being angrier in general.

The Petrican, et al. study begs the question of whether you can fake a pleasant (or at least non-hostile) expression by adjusting your facial features. If you’re born hostile, in other words, can you implant a permanent smile on your face so that you come to be seen as sympathetic and friendly? My guess is that such fake smiles are easily detected for what they are. On the other hand, if you keep the smile on your face across the decades of your adult life, you may be able to avoid having those angry lines etched into your countenance.

Returning to the OKCupid study, the present findings suggest that when people are on date-matching websites, they have a way to tune into your apparent personality traits based on your facial expression alone. One might argue that basing your decision on who to date on appearance alone is overly superficial. However, according to the Petrican study, it is possible that the face, if not the eyes, does provide a window into your soul.

[1] Unlike Facebook, OKCupid is explicit about its research policies. You know when you join the site that you may become part of a data-collection project. Furthermore, when OKCupid chose to hid pictures from profiles, users were well aware of what was going on. Facebook users didn't know their feeds were being manipulated. Finally, the Facebook study was conducted by researchers affiliated with universities (and therefore subject to review boards) but the OKCupid study was sponsored by the company.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2014


Petrican, R., Todorov, A., & Grady, C. (2014). Personality at face value: Facial appearance predicts self and other personality judgments among strangers and spouses. Journal Of Nonverbal Behavior, 38(2), 259-277. doi:10.1007/s10919-014-0175-3

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