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Should I trust you? Let me see your face… 

Friday, December 2, 2016
posted by Douglas Keene

trustworthy-or-notIf you try to identify what it is that makes someone trustworthy, you might list their forthrightness, values consistent with your own, or even their willingness to embrace unpopular positions. And that is all well and good but it likely is untrue. Instead, researchers tell us, we draw “relatively stable trustworthinesss impressions from facial appearance”.

Apparently, based on the photo illustrating this post (taken from the research article) we define trust as having less prominent eyebrows and jawlines, softer lips and slightly narrower noses. Overall, a softer appearance. The more “trustworthy” photos in the left column look younger, with less prominent brows and generally more traditionally feminine than the “untrustworthy” photos in the right column. But this is merely how they strike us— we should point out the researchers described the more trustworthy faces as neutral, neither masculine nor feminine.

In this research, participants were asked to imagine they were moving to a new area and had asked real estate brokers to find a home for them. To add to the realism of the task, the participant’s only clues as to the skill of the realtor were these photos and typed statements ostensibly made by each realtor in describing the home they had identified for the participants (sensible factors for how we ourselves would choose a realtor for a cross-country move). After seeing the photos and statements, the participants were asked to respond to how willing they would be to pick the house this realtor recommended and then how trustworthy the realtor seemed to them.

Across four different experiments (and more than 400 undergraduate student-participants), the researchers found that participants spontaneously presumed trustworthinesss from facial appearance alone.

While we have blogged on this idea before, it has been in the context of not trusting men with wide faces (which is simply based on higher testosterone levels). This research is not from evolutionary psychologists but we can see the “untrustworthy” faces in the right column of the graphic illustrating this post are clearly wider. While today’s researchers say facial trustworthiness may have “pervasive consequences in everyday life” we would say you always want to assess if a witness or party would look more trustworthy with a few appearance tweaks.

We already pay attention to attire and accessories but we’ve also written about things like covering tattoos or even something as seemingly unnecessary as telling a witness to not place their fist in their mouth when testifying. And speaking of those “pervasive consequences in everyday life”, recent studies have shown us that men with wide faces are more likely to receive the death sentence (even when the conviction is later found to be wrongful).

While it may seem ridiculous to consider shaping a witness or party’s eyebrows or considering makeup techniques or glasses to make deep-set eyes appear more wide-set—it is also ridiculous to infer trustworthiness based on appearance alone. But we do it all the time. Just add this as “one more thing” to consider in preparing your witness or party for the courtroom.

Klapper, A., Dotsch, R., van Rooij, I., & Wigboldus, D. (2016). Do we spontaneously form stable trustworthiness impressions from facial appearance? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 111 (5), 655-664 DOI: 10.1037/pspa0000062

Image taken from the article itself (the researchers used software to morph the faces)

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