There's little doubt humans have evolved to make useful judgements based on the appearance of a person's face โ€“ whether someone looks angry with us, for example โ€“ but is it reasonable for us to judge someone's character based on facial structure alone?

Photo Credit: Andrew Morell via flickr | CC BY-ND 2.0

In the latest issue of Trends in Cognitive Sciences, researchers Christopher Olivola, Friederike Funk, and Alexander Todorov review a range of studies that examine our tendency to form impressions of people based on their facial appearances (what cognitive scientists have termed "facial stereotyping"). Their conclusion? Humans aren't as good at reading people's faces as we think. James Hamblin summarizes some of their findings for The Atlantic:

By systematically altering or selecting the faces that participants are presented with, researchers have been able to examine how variations in facial appearance bias human decisions. These studies have shown not just correlations, but causal evidence that facial appearances influence voting, economic exchanges, and legal judgments. People tend to draw inferences about personality characteristics, above and beyond what we might assume based on things like gender, ethnicity, or expression. Social attributions from faces alone tend to be constructed from how common facial features are within a culture, cross-cultural norms (e.g., inferences on masculinity/femininity), and idiosyncrasies like resemblance to friends, colleagues, loved ones, and, importantly, ourselves. Olivola's research has shown that these facial attributions people make have serious implications for how people are treated, and their outcomes in life. The especially unfortunate part of these inferences is how heavily they factor into critical decisions, in lieu of actual facts.

"The fact that social decisions are influenced by facial morphology would be less troubling if it were a strong and reliable indicator of people's underlying traits," the researchers write in today's article. "Unfortunately, careful consideration of the evidence suggests that it is not."

If you're like me, you'll e-mail Hamblin's piece to all the people in your life who are convinced they can scan people's faces for signs of competence, trustworthiness, friendliness, or what-have-you. And, if your people are like my people, they'll probably dismiss the article out of hand, confident in their abilities.

According to Olivola, this kind of confidence in "facial stereotyping" is problematic. "Instead of applauding our ability to make inferences about social characteristics from facial appearances," Olivola says, "the focus should be on the dangers":

I mean, is it wise for us to tell people, 'Oh, yeah, people are great at telling political orientation on the basis of faces.' If someone looks like they're conservative, or if they look like they're gay or whatever, it's totally okay for you to think you're probably right? We need to be more careful about that. It makes for great articles and everything, but when you look at the data critically, it paints a much less generous picture of the human ability to draw accurate inferences from faces. We need a lot of strong evidence before putting that message out there.

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At least for now, it sounds like that evidence is lacking.

[ Trends in Cognitive Sciences via The Atlantic]