The tyranny of facial impressions
Among all the advertisements you see in bill boards and public places, as well as in social media, what proportion is carried by a face? Without doing an actual tally, it is safe to say that an overwhelming majority of them do. This is because we humans place a lot of importance on a face and make our judgements based on our impressions of that face. But how biased have we become in making judgements based on a face?
First of all, why do we even have faces? The clue to the answer lies in the fact that you yourself recognize faces in non-human objects. You always look for a face without even intending to. I am sure you must have encountered some creature and wondered right away which part was its face. Heck, you even see patterns of faces in clouds, sand, even a slice of toast! This is because our brains have evolved to always search for a face that we can recognize so that we can react to it. If our brains did not automatically do that, we will always be lost, wavering as to what is our anchor at the moment for our reactions. Our brain is built to make decisions moment after moment. That is why our brains are so adept in making judgements, even without enough information or even downright illogical.
So how far have we taken our reliance on our impressions of faces?
In the world of CEOs, a study has found that in terms of CEO selection, face does matter, but wait there’s more – face does not signal leader performance. Examining faces of CEOs in the Fortune 500 using a more objective method than just subjective impressions, it found that CEO faces significantly varied from the faces of ordinary citizens and even from professors. However, these facial attributes were not able to predict the leadership qualities of CEOs. This means that there is a clear bias in the way facial attributes are considered in the selection of CEOs but that this does not make a mark in the way we predict how these CEOs will perform. So while your company may have a CEO who will exude dominance and leadership, this may not translate to actual leadership success.
In the world of politics, an interesting study has found that the having a “baby face” can get you more votes. They found that if you have a set of candidates and they turned out to be at par with each other in terms of perceived competence, warmth and even attractiveness, having a “baby face” will be the most influential factor in political votes. So you should not be surprised at why many photos of political candidates during an election campaign suddenly experience some kind of major “throwback” to their youthful selves.
In the online world, researchers found that that if you are choosing which profile photo you will use, it may be better for you to ask others to choose it for you. This is based on research that people choose the more flattering images that are more “effective” in online interactions when they are choosing it for others but not for themselves.
But how about a face in a photo versus an actual live encounter with a face? In terms of how much we are willing to cooperate in specific situations like games, a study found that we seem to be able to be more willing to work with those with whom we have personally interacted than those whom we just saw in a photo. This confirms how much more a face exudes than just a static image of facial features which is what a photo has.
In the world where I professionally live most of the time, which is science communication, there are deep biases about what the face of science should look like. It is a very popular notion that science bears the face of a geek, dork, with glasses, unruly hair. Einstein has a lot to do with that, I think. He is the iconic image of a scientist for generations and we are kinda stuck with that.
More and more as I work longer in this field and encounter all kinds of scientists, I am beginning to be more convinced that physical appearance of scientists is more of a result of the scientific enterprise than their personalities to begin with. But there is no question that the general public seems to have an impression of what the face of science should look like if they are to be convinced of the reliability of the science being shared with them.
A very recent study tested for the traits that people can infer from looking at scientist’s faces. They tested impressions of scientists’ “competence” (intelligence and skill) , “sociability” (likeability) and “morality” (trustworthiness) by looking at a scientist’s face. The results revealed a confirmation of the stereotype. Those whose faces radiated “competence”, “morality”, and “attractiveness” were found to be more likely to engage others interest in their work. The researchers acknowledged that this shows that the public assigns an “entertainment value” to science communication and this makes the scientist subject to the same “criteria” in show business – attractiveness. However, those whom the subjects found to be relatively unattractive but who appeared competent and moral apparently unsociable, created a stronger impression of doing high-quality research. The more socially awkward a scientist seems to the public, the more the public thinks that scientist does great work.
In other words, a scientist would more likely get the attention of the public to their work if the scientist were handsome or pretty BUT the public would not think the work of the attractive scientist as much as they would that of an unattractive scientist. This is why photos of scientists are not required when you submit a study to a journal or to a funding agency and why photos are a MUST when you are applying to be in show business. The face of a scientist is not the main instrument in science but the face of an artist is everything in show business.
There seems to be no escaping how we automatically form impressions when we encounter faces. Just do a thought exercise of imagining 7 billion faces and you will be more overwhelmed than if you just thought of them as stick figures. The “face” is loaded with cues to which we react and assign meaning. But we also know that impressions change, between people, between situations, even on the slightest change in facial expression. Knowing now how tyrannical your impression of someone’s face could be, how would you now look at the next face you encounter today? ***