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Face value: Neuroscience shows how first impressions work

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SAM BARAN  ABC News 8/2017

Thirty milliseconds of exposure to someone’s face is all it takes to provide sufficient information for your brain to form an impression of them.

So says Face Value, a new book based on Princeton psychologist Alexander Todorov’s research into the science of first impressions.

Professor Todorov takes as his starting point the fact that judging people based on their appearance is a relatively recent phenomenon.

“If you imagine human history compressed into 24 hours, most of the time we have lived in small-scale societies, except for the last five minutes,” he says.

As ecologist and author Jared Diamond says, it’s only in the last 7,500 years that “people had to learn, for the first time in history, how to encounter strangers regularly without attempting to kill them”.

According to Professor Todorov’s research, we judge faces along three different dimensions: attractiveness, dominance, and trustworthiness. Look at the image below. Which face seems most trustworthy?

Almost universally, people agree that it’s the face on the far right. More feminine, smiling faces are considered more generally trustworthy in every culture.

But evaluating someone’s character based on how they look at a given moment can be very misleading, Professor Todorov warns.

“The judgments might be accurate here and now, but they’re very, very lousy guides of what the person is like across time and situations,” he says.

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Instead, what we see in others’ faces probably tells us more about ourselves.

Revealing our hidden biases

Which of these two faces appears more masculine to you?

In fact, both images are of the same face covered by a different noise mask — a randomly generated screen of static.

In Professor Todorov’s study, researchers showed participants androgynous faces warped by noise masks and asked discriminatory questions. Then they grouped their impressions of the faces together and merged them to visualise what enters our heads when we picture certain emotions, genders and identities.

This technique is known as “superstitious perception” because it’s only the noise masks that differentiate any one face from another. Yet when viewing the images, our brains seize upon subtle distinctions in the shape of mouths or the darkness of eyes to make judgments.

But superstitious perception can also reveal prejudices we’d rather not acknowledge. For example, blended images of ethnic groups formed by people who harbour animosity to them are more menacing and full of threat than the average.

An unacknowledged pitfall

The issue with first impressions influencing so much of our lives is that we don’t see them as a problem, Professor Todorov explains.

“People know there are lots of biases based on sexual orientation, based on race … once you’re aware of these you can create policy that prevents discrimination,” he says.

“If you think first impressions are just fine and accurate, we have a problem. They go unacknowledged underneath the table.”

There’s little harm in perceiving a face as more feminine or masculine. But that impression can affect your vote when you head to the polling booth.

“If you think dominance is an important characteristic for a leader, people with more feminine faces would be less likely to be perceived as competent leaders,” says Professor Todorov

Older man in Hawaiian shirt with Maltese terrier, also in Hawaiian shirt

PHOTO Professor Todorov’s research may explain why so many people seem to look like their dogs.

So how can we minimise the dangers of first impressions? One way is to remove them from the equation. The introduction of blind auditions for symphony orchestras in the 70s and 80s caused a drastic increase in the number of women hired.

The Oakland A’s, one of America’s poorest Major League Baseball teams, found a formula for success in hiring outstanding players who simply didn’t look like big-league hitters.

But in our media-ridden world, escaping first impressions isn’t easy. Professor Todorov’s best advice — short of broad policy changes — is to try to understand the role they play and use it to your advantage.

“You have to be aware whenever you post an image of yourself, it will be judged. You have to ask yourself: what is the context of this image? What is it for?”

And remember, sometimes the consequences of first impressions can be harmless. It’s probably the reason we think so many people look like their dogs, Professor Todorov says.

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