For centuries, the pseudoscience of physiognomy - judging people's character from their faces - has been around, but a new Princeton University study shows that people make such judgments based on their own experiences.
The results appear in the journal Nature Human Behavior. The study included researchers from Princeton University, Utrecht University and Hebrew University.
In previous research, senior author Alexander Todorov, a professor of psychology, and colleagues showed that we make up our minds about others after seeing their faces for a fraction of a second - and that these snap judgments, which are usually incorrect, predict economic, legal, voting and other decisions. "People form instantaneous impressions from facial appearance, but what drives these impressions?" Todorov says.
The study's participants were shown hundreds of faces and asked to judge their trustworthiness, attractiveness, competence and other characteristics. The results showed that exposure to different faces not only shifts what faces people perceive as typical, but also what faces they evaluate more positively (more typical faces are evaluated more positively).
"Our results show that the mere statistical position of faces imbues them with social meaning -- faces are evaluated more negatively the more they deviate from a learned central tendency, or what each person considers a typical face," Todorov says. "These determinants of impressions are not about facial features per se but about one's learning of faces. In other words, although there is no 'average' human face, you like faces that are closer to your own definition of a typical face. Our findings have important implications for understanding cross-cultural and inter-group differences in evaluation of faces."