August 05, 2008
Characteristics Of Trusted Face Discovered

Here's another research result that will some day guide prospective parents who want to select and modify embryos to guarantee the success of their kids. Our brains are wired up to find certain facial shapes as more trustworthy.

A pair of Princeton psychology researchers has developed a computer program that allows scientists to analyze better than ever before what it is about certain human faces that makes them look either trustworthy or fearsome. In doing so, they have also found that the program allows them to construct computer-generated faces that display the most trustworthy or dominant faces possible.

Such work could have implications for those who care what effect their faces may have upon a beholder, from salespeople to criminal defendants, the researchers said.

In a paper appearing in the online edition this week of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Alexander Todorov, an assistant professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton, and Nikolaas Oosterhof, a research specialist, continue an inquiry into the myriad messages conveyed by the human face. In 2005, Todorov's lab garnered international headlines with a study published in Science demonstrating that quick facial judgments can accurately predict real-world election results.

This opens up the possibility that Hollywood casting agents could use software to go through large numbers of photos to discover, for example, faces that would make for fearsome dictators or slashers or evil spies.

A U-shaped mouth and an almost surprised look to the eyes maximize feelings of trustworthiness. Eyebrows close to the eyes project a dominant look.

From there, using a commercial software program that generates composites of human faces (based on laser scans of real subjects), the scientists asked another group of test subjects to look at 300 faces and rate them for trustworthiness, dominance and threat. Common features of both trustworthiness and dominance emerged. A trustworthy face, at its most extreme, has a U-shaped mouth and eyes that form an almost surprised look. An untrustworthy face, at its most extreme, is an angry one with the edges of the mouth curled down and eyebrows pointing down at the center. The least dominant face possible is one resembling a baby's with a larger distance between the eyes and the eyebrows than other faces. A threatening face can be obtained by averaging an untrustworthy and a dominant face.

With the ability to predict reactions to faces comes the ability to design faces to maximize desired reactions. Want to design a dominant and highly trusted face for a future leader?

Using the program and the ratings from subjects, the scientists could actually construct models of how faces vary on these social dimensions. Once those models were established, the scientists could exaggerate faces along these dimensions, show them to other test subjects to confirm that they were eliciting the predicted emotional response, and find out what facial features are critical for different social judgments.

Within 20 years if not sooner offspring genetic engineering will be used to choose appearances of offspring. Imagine the possibilities. Ambitious parents who want their kids to become CEOs and high elected officials will select embryos that will grow up to to become adults with facial appearances and body shapes that maximize their potential to dominate and control others.

Are faces that elicit feelings of trust really more trustworthy? Why would our genes that cause that reaction have been selected for unless that reaction was justified?

Share |      Randall Parker, 2008 August 05 08:42 PM  Brain Innate

adam said at August 6, 2008 1:19 AM:

Is the adaptive basis for tending to trust surprised looking faces and distrusting angry looking faces really that mysterious? The facial traits listed all seem like reasonably decent clues to a person's emotional state. If those clues are accurate enough, then trusting those cues would be selected for, even if it has the unwanted side effect of leading us to wrongly trust or mistrust people who just happen to have those facial characteristics, regardless of the emotional state.

Don Bastardo said at August 6, 2008 2:49 AM:

A) This is some really crap "science". Wow, I am shocked that the least dominant looking face possible looks like a baby. You know who looks like babies? FRIGGING BABIES!!!

B) What in the name of all that is holy is a "U" shaped mouth.

agnostic said at August 6, 2008 3:09 AM:

There's a lot a research on this. If you're into it, you should read Leslie Zebrowitz' *Reading Faces*. She also wrote a commentary article on that study about "the faces of winning politicians." As Mr. Bastardo points out, it mostly boils down to how babyfaced or maturefaced a person is.

It turns out that babyfaced males are actually more bad-boyish in behavior, so their facial appearance is a form of mimicry that's going undetected so far: get them to trust you, when you're not as trustworthy as you seem.

Babyfaced females aren't particularly bad-girlish, though. It's only the babyfaced males whose appearances deceive.

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