The last time you voted for a political candidate, you likely thought about their political party affiliations, their positions on the issues that are important to you, and perhaps their voting record. What you might not have considered was the first impression they made on you. In his new book, Face Value: The Irresistible Influence of First Impressions, Alexander Todorov makes a compelling case that perhaps you should.
It is not just that we make first impressions, Tododrov tells us, but that we make them instantly and automatically, and once formed, these impressions seem almost immune to any evidence to the contrary.
“We look at a person and immediately a certain impression of his character forms itself in us. A glance, a few spoken words are sufficient to tell us a story about a highly complex matter. We know that such impressions form with remarkable rapidity and with great ease. Subsequent observations may enrich or upset our view, but we can no more prevent its rapid growth than we can avoid perceiving a visual object or hearing a melody,” Todorov quotes Solomon Ashe, one of the founding fathers of social psychology,
Physiognomy, which is the science of reading character in faces, actually has quite a long history. In a treatise attributed to Aristotle, the character of certain animals is revealed in their form, and also revealed in the humans who resemble them.
Further evidence is found in an 1852 book titled, Comparative Physiognomy or Resemblances between Men and Animals, in which Germans are likened to lions – especially when they have heavy facial hair resembling a lion’s beard – Irish are likened to dogs, and Turks are likened to turkeys.
The faces of famous personalities, such as Julius Ceasar or Moses Mendelssohn are often described as having “superior qualities,” and physiognomy has been used to justify both the science of eugenics, and the promotion of prejudices. However, while physiognomists may have gotten a few things wrong, it is the ease with which we dispatch impressions that makes them so appealing.
The power of first impressions has been harnessed in the sports world, too. In 2014, the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks employed the services of a “face reader” to better choose their team members. Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland A’s – one of the poorest MLB teams with one of the best winning records – has also been able to exploit the first impressions we form about baseball players to his advantage.
First impressions also predict the outcomes of important political elections. Todorov describes a study he conducted of several political candidates including Hilary Clinton and John Kerry. He determined that judgments about competence levels based on appearances alone influenced about seventy percent of the elections.
On a cognitive level, one reason first impressions can be so appealing to us is that they save energy.
“When we need to makes a decision, particularly when we have little knowledge, we rely on shortcuts: hunches, “gut” responses, stereotypes. We use shortcuts because it is easy. We are ready to leap to conclusions, especially when we are too busy, or too lazy to look for hard evidence,” writes Todorov.
And these cognitive shortcuts, Todorov writes, have real world implications. In one study of 506 small claims court cases in Massachusetts, the appearance of plaintiffs and defendants mattered almost as much as their procurement of legal support. For example, “babyfaced” defendants – as opposed to mature-faced defendants – were less likely to lose the case when the case was about intentional harm.
Factors such as the size and shape of the eyes, the position of the eyebrows, and the height and width of the forehead all create a visual image in which we instantly make a judgement about a person. Two of the most important dimensions on which we judge someone, Todorov contends, are their trustworthiness and their power. In one study Todorov conducted, it was the emergence of positive emotions that predicted trustworthiness. On the other hand, when faces were portrayed as angrier, they were rated as less trustworthy.
However, Todorov notes, we also bring our own biases to our impressions.
“At first sight, we like and trust people who resemble people whom we already like and trust,” he writes.
This influence also extends to hiring decisions. Job applicants whose faces resemble former successful employees are often judged as more qualified.
Our impressions can also be manipulated.
“The face is not a still image frozen in time but a constantly shifting stream of expressions. Yet snapshot images of different expressions predictably shape our impressions,” writes Todorov.
And when they do, the result is often suboptimal decisions that rely on the smallest possible knowledge to make broad and sweeping predictions. Bernie Madoff, for example, had a trustworthy face.
However there are some expressive features that do convey our habits. We look better after a good night sleep. Consuming carotenoids in fruits and vegetables gives us a healthy glow. The accumulation of fat under the cheeks reasonably predicts body weight.
As much as our first impressions may or may not be accurate, we are hard-wired to attend to faces, which is a good thing, because it is how we can recognize emotions. However, we must be careful not to make too much of these facial impressions, because as Todorov says, “predicting personality has always been an uncertain business.”
Filled with surprising insights and compelling evidence, Face Value shows us that not only do our first impressions hold more sway over our decisions than we’d like to admit, but that we can’t seem to help ourselves from making them.
Face Value: The Irresistible Influence of First Impressions
Princeton University Press
Hardcover, 263 Pages