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Ethics and Morality

What We Decide About People Based on Their Appearance

... and why our judgments are often wrong.

Key points

  • People often use facial appearances to judge others' personality traits.
  • A new paper finds people are more likely to rely on appearances when judging traits related to sociability.
  • Judgments based on appearances are usually incorrect and can lead to biased decisions.

Appearances matter. When you meet someone for the first time, there is a good chance that your first impression will be shaped by what the other person looks like (and, in particular, what their face looks like).

Even in situations where facial appearances shouldn’t matter—like deciding if a defendant is guilty or innocent; or choosing where to stay on Airbnb—there are consistent advantages to having "the right look." Defendants who look trustworthy are less likely to receive the death penalty (Wilson & Rule, 2016) and attractive-looking hosts can charge higher rents on Airbnb (Jaeger et al., 2019).

Unfortunately, the judgments we make from appearances are often wrong. Most people think they can judge another person’s personality based on what they look like, but usually they can’t.

Even at their best, people are only slightly better than chance at judging what a stranger is actually like from looking at their appearance (Todorov et al., 2015). Appearances can lead us astray when deciding who to hire or who to vote for. This means that it’s important to understand when people are the most likely to be biased by facial appearance.

In a new paper led by Dr. Bastian Jaeger (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam), we examined when people are the most likely to be influenced by facial appearances (Jaeger et al., 2022). In other words, we studied which personality traits people think they are the best at judging from appearances. Our central finding was that people were most likely to rely on facial appearances when judging traits related to sociability—whether a person is friendly and warm.

Morality, Competence, and Sociability

When people judge each other, they focus on three overarching dimensions of character: morality (whether someone is trustworthy and honest), competence (whether someone is intelligent and skilled), and sociability (whether someone is friendly and warm). Of these three dimensions, morality is generally the most important. In social situations, our first priority is to figure out whether someone is going to help (or harm) us.

But competence and sociability are also important, and the relative importance of each trait depends on the situation. When you are looking for a brain surgeon, you might focus on finding the most skillful person possible. When you are choosing who to approach at a party, then you might care more about finding someone who is warm and friendly.

The Sociable Face

We studied to what extent people think they are able to judge these three traits (morality, competence, and sociability) from facial appearances. Across five studies, we found consistent evidence that people think they are better able to judge sociability from facial appearances (compared to morality and competence). People believe that appearances can help reveal whether a stranger is agreeable, warm, and friendly. This doesn’t necessarily mean that people are able to accurately judge sociability from faces, just that people think they can.

In one study, we asked people to rate how appropriate it was to use facial appearance to judge potential job applicants. People considered it most appropriate (and effective) to use appearances to judge applicants for jobs that were related to sociability (participants were told that the manager needed to hire an employee who was friendly and likable). These results suggest that appearances can introduce bias into hiring procedures, especially for positions that require good social skills.

Why do people believe that sociability is revealed in the face? The answer may be related to emotional expression. Social traits tend to be related to emotions, they are connected to how people display their emotions and respond to others’ emotions. Importantly, people believe that traits related to the expression of emotions (for example, warmth and friendliness) are revealed in appearances. In line with this idea, we found that people believed that they were the most skilled in detecting social traits that were clearly linked with emotions (for example, enthusiasm and playfulness).

Don’t Be Blinded By Beauty

Our study adds to an extensive field of research showing the impact of facial appearances. We add to this field by showing that appearances are likely to play an even larger role in situations that are related to sociability. But focusing on appearances is likely to lead to biased decisions. Although people think they tell from appearances if someone is warm and easy to get along with, they would likely be better off ignoring this information, especially in high-stakes situations.

Facebook image: YAKOBCHUK VIACHESLAV/Shutterstock

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Jaeger, B., Evans, A. M., Stel, M., & van Beest, I. (2022). Understanding the role of faces in person perception: Increased reliance on facial appearance when judging sociability. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

Jaeger, B., Sleegers, W. W., Evans, A. M., Stel, M., & van Beest, I. (2019). The effects of facial attractiveness and trustworthiness in online peer-to-peer markets. Journal of Economic Psychology, 75, 102125.

Todorov, A., Olivola, C. Y., Dotsch, R., & Mende-Siedlecki, P. (2015). Social attributions from faces: Determinants, consequences, accuracy, and functional significance. Annual Review of Psychology, 66, 519-545.

Wilson, J. P., & Rule, N. O. (2016). Hypothetical sentencing decisions are associated with actual capital punishment outcomes: The role of facial trustworthiness. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 7(4), 331-338.

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