Published on May 19, 2017

Not long ago, most people would probably judge how trustworthy you were based entirely on your physical appearance. More specifically, the pseudoscience of physiognomy claimed that a person’s facial expressions could tell you a lot about their personality: were they honest, would you get along with them, are they good at their job, etc. Today, we know that kind of thinking is a dangerous pseudoscience. We also know that looks do play a big role in how we evaluate people, and that these evaluations are often based on cultural stereotypes. Psychology professor Alexander Todorov, author of Face Value: The Irresistible Influence of First Impressions , explains how our biases affect the way we treat people, and by extension, how we think of ourselves in relation to them.

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So physiognomy, or the so-called pseudoscience of reading character from faces, has a very, very long history. The first historical document dates all the way back to the time of Aristotle, but it really got extremely, extremely popular in the 18th and 19th century.

And for a while there were quite a few studies in the beginning of the 20th century—we’re talking the ’20s, in the ’30s—by psychologists finding very, very little evidence for the accuracy of physiognomic inferences.

And recently there was, for example, a computer science paper claiming that presumably you can guess whether a person is a criminal or not based on their facial image. And actually the history of identifying the criminal has a very, very long history in physiognomy.

There’s lots of studies showing effects of appearance across different domains. In my own lab more than ten years ago we showed that you can predict electoral success based on judgment from the appearance of politicians. Then there have been many other studies in the legal domains. For example, recent studies show that prisoners who are sentenced to death for the same crime as those we were sentence to a life-sentence without parole, the main difference was the prisoners who were sentenced to death looked less “trustworthy.”

Also see Face Value: The Irresistible Influence of First Impressions

The scientific story of first impressions–and why the snap character judgments we make from faces are irresistible but usually incorrect

We make up our minds about others after seeing their faces for a fraction of a second–and these snap judgments predict all kinds of important decisions. For example, politicians who simply look more competent are more likely to win elections. Yet the character judgments we make from faces are as inaccurate as they are irresistible; in most situations, we would guess more accurately if we ignored faces. So why do we put so much stock in these widely shared impressions? What is their purpose if they are completely unreliable? In this book, Alexander Todorov, one of the world’s leading researchers on the subject, answers these questions as he tells the story of the modern science of first impressions.

Drawing on psychology, cognitive science, neuroscience, computer science, and other fields, this accessible and richly illustrated book describes cutting-edge research and puts it in the context of the history of efforts to read personality from faces. Todorov describes how we have evolved the ability to read basic social signals and momentary emotional states from faces, using a network of brain regions dedicated to the processing of faces. Yet contrary to the nineteenth-century pseudoscience of physiognomy and even some of today’s psychologists, faces don’t provide us a map to the personalities of others. Rather, the impressions we draw from faces reveal a map of our own biases and stereotypes.

A fascinating scientific account of first impressions, Face Value explains why we pay so much attention to faces, why they lead us astray, and what our judgments actually tell us.

Face Value: The Irresistible Influence of First Impressions