Can you tell who’s trustworthy or not, who’s a criminal, and who’s a narcissist or psychopath just by looking at someone’s face?
Surprisingly, the answer may be “yes.” But it is NOT something you should count on—nothing takes the place of common sense and critical thinking. The worst criminals are often the most ordinary and harmless looking; that’s how they’re able to do what they do.
Experts say that over evolutionary time, the ability to quickly extract information from faces has given us an edge in predicting character and behavior. “Thin-slicing” is the term that Ambady and Rosenthal coined in 1992 to describe the ability to infer something about a person’s personality, character, or other traits after a very brief exposure.
Can you tell who is trustworthy?
I happened upon an article today that said within milliseconds of seeing someone’s face — even before you consciously perceive it — your brain immediately and automatically makes a judgement about whether or not that person is trustworthy. People generally think that faces with high inner eyebrows and prominent cheekbones are more trustworthy, while the opposite features are untrustworthy, as illustrated in the photo below:
But the study results didn’t say if there was an actual correlation between a person’s face and their trustworthiness, so I went in search of an answer. Apparently, there is.
One caveat: Scientists at Princeton University say that having facial characteristics that convey trustworthiness could have implications for those who care what effect their faces may have upon a beholder, such as salespeople and criminal defendants. “While it may be true that people have little control over their facial features, the study also indicates that expressions may be important as well, which could have implications for people in jobs that require extensive interactions with the public.” In other words, people with facial features that make them appear untrustworthy can manipulate their facial expressions to appear more trustworthy. Whom do we fear or trust? Faces instantly guide us, scientists say
Can you tell who is a criminal?
To determine if people can identify criminals just by looking at them, researchers at Cornell University showed study participants pictures of the faces of young Caucasian men in their twenties, with neutral facial expressions and without scars, tattoos or excessive facial hair. Some were criminals, and some were not.
Their results from two experiments consistently show that individuals can tell who is a criminal and who is not.
Try it for yourself: Look at each picture below (they’re from from the study just mentioned) and try to determine if each person is an actual convicted criminal, or not. The criminals are convicted arsonists, assailants, drug dealers, or rapists, and are mixed in with non-criminals.
The answers are below.
Pictures are from the article “The Accuracy of Inferences About Criminality Based On Facial Appearance” by Jeffrey M. Valla, Stephen J. Ceci, and Wendy M. Williams (Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology 5 (2011) 66.)
Answers to the quiz above:
2. Drug dealer
8. Drug dealer
How did you do? Study participants were right 60% of the time. They couldn’t tell what type of crime an individual committed, just that he was a criminal.
But there was one important and worrisome finding:
“In both experiments, women were unable to spot rapists. Women consistently rate convicted rapists to be less likely to be criminal than not only other types of criminals but noncriminals as well! While this may be initially puzzling, upon further reflection, it makes perfect sense, as the study authors explain in their paper. In order to be a successful rapist, the man has to be able to fool the woman and earn her trust initially. Men who “fit the bill” by looking like a rapist or otherwise criminal and dangerous would not be able to do that. They would not be able to get close enough to the women to rape them. This may be why women, but not men, are unable to spot rapists, even though women are equally good as men at spotting other types of criminals.” Criminals Look Different From Noncriminals, Psychology Today
Can you tell who is in the “dark triad?”
Machavellians, Narcissists and Psychopaths, oh my. It’s dangerous out there. Do these characters have a certain ‘look” about them? Once again, the answer may be “yes.”
In this study, Nicholas S. Holtzman, from the Department of Psychology at Washington University in St. Louis, wanted to find out if facial structure a is valid cue of the dark triad of personality (Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy). He “obtained self-reports and peer reports of personality as well as expression-neutral photographs of targets, and then I created prototypes of people high and low on each of the three dimensions by digitally combining select photographs of Caucasian targets.
The results indicated that unacquainted observers reliably detected the dark triad composite, especially in female prototypes. Thus, not only is the dark triad a set of psycho-social characteristics—it may also be a set of physical–morphological characteristics. These results suggest that onlookers can successfully use emotionally-neutral human faces when striving to make valid initial impressions regarding the dark triad in general.”
Holtzman, N. S. (2011). Facing a psychopath: Detecting the dark triad from emotionally-neutral faces, using prototypes from the Personality Faceaurus. Journal of Research in Personality, 45, 648-654. These photos are a compilation of faces that are digital combinations of people high and low in personality traits.
So, what should we make of this? I would say proceed with caution. If your instincts or your assessment tells you someone may be bad news, listen. But if you have the opposite reaction, be careful anyway. Remember, people can manage their facial expression, rapists can look harmless, smiles are disarming, and the studies cited above are small and far from the last word on the subject.
I’m not a big fan of “trusting your gut.” Find out why here: Never Trust Your Gut…Unless it Tells You to RUN
One last test:
Criminal, or that nice woman who lives next door to you?
Too bad it’s not always that obvious.
She is Karla Homolka, kidnapper, rapist, and serial killer. Oh, and she might just be your neighbor. She got out of prison due to a technicality after serving just 12 years, and no one is sure where she is at the time of this writing.
Would the man in the image above arouse your suspicion?
That’s Gary Ridgeway, the Green River Killer, who honed a dull, unassuming, every-man facade that fooled authorities, and more tragically, fooled his victims. In speaking of his victims, he said “That was their downfall. My appearance was different from what I really was.” Investigators described him as non-threatening, totally unimpressive, and even meek. His unassuming appearance and personality allowed him a 19-year killing spree which took the lives of several dozen girls and women.
Many of the women Ridgway later killed asked him whether he was the Green River killer, he told investigators. In response, he said he would ask them:
“Do I look like the Green River killer?”
They always said no.
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