Face the Truth — What Can You Tell Just By Looking at Someone?


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.

not 1


yes drug dealer


yes assailant


yes rapist 3


not 13


not 5


yes arsonist 3


yes dd 1


yes rapist


yes rapist 2


not 10


not 2


yes arsonist 2


not 7


yes assailant 2


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:

1. No

2. Drug dealer

3. Assailant

4. Rapist

5. No

6. No

7. Arsonist

8. Drug dealer

9. Rapist

10. Rapist

11. No

12. No

13. Arsonist

14. No

15. Assailant

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.


Comments are closed. 

“Such a great gem. One of my favorite books about this subject as the author paints such a clear picture of what these relationships are like.”

“Practical, concise, well-written and researched. Everyone should have a copy of this book. In fact, they should give one to every high school student. That would prevent a lot of people from getting involved in ‘?relationships’? with these hidden, manipulative predators. An easy five stars, I wish I could give it a hundred!”

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19 thoughts on “Face the Truth — What Can You Tell Just By Looking at Someone?”

  1. Hope

    This is fascinating. Your really teaching us to be aware and hopefully prevent us from falling victim again. I’m much more cautious in all situations now. I don’t ever want to experience anything like that again. Thanks for this information, another tool to help us.

    1. Admin

      It really is fascinating. I’m going to go around sizing everyone up for dark triad traits now, lol. Sometimes someone random will catch my eye, and I get a little chill down my spine. Next time, I might know why.

  2. AnnettePK

    Very interesting, and worth further study. An important group that is not available for study and comparison is criminals who do not get caught/convicted. They are more likely to be more difficult to identify by appearance since their success at avoiding getting caught is probably helped by their benign appearance. I am aware of more psychopaths and common criminals who are clever enough to never get caught and who blend well into non criminal society very well in many ways.

    1. Admin

      I was thinking the same thing. Some of the ‘not criminals’ looked rather criminal-ish to me, and I thought hmmm…maybe they are and just haven’t been caught.

  3. Nearlybel

    Hey, thanks Admin, fascinating.
    I took the test with 70/30 success. But I didn’t get one of the rapists, and the one guy I found most attractive and wanted to say no to, I eventually said yes he was a criminal and he wasn’t!
    I think it may be that I still don’t truely trust myself and my judgement yet, well that’s my opinion anyways!
    My psycho who was never ‘my type’ in his physical looks but he was certainly able to use all his other perverse methods to entrap me.
    I feel as though I’ll be Buffy the vampire slayer now, I’m hyper vigilant around people anyhow, this brings another dimension.
    Just fascinating, thank you xxx

    1. Admin

      Hi, Nearlybel. I don’t think anyone should count on this 100%. Our brain may perceive someone as untrustworthy…and then that person will smile, and be as nice as pie, or whatever, and over-ride our first impression. But I think it helps to have this knowledge in our anti-psychopath arsenal anyway. Buffy the Vampire Slayer…LOL. I’m a bit hyper-vigilant, too. I’m in the midst of hiring a dog sitter, and have installed WiFi surveillance cameras around the house so I can be alerted when she’s there, and remotely watch what she’s doing. I’m an overprotective mother, one who knows too much about psychopaths.

      THANK YOU ever so much for your wonderful review of the Boundaries book! Much appreciated. xxx

  4. HarperKallins-Linney

    I grew up with a psychopath father and he is a pedophile. My mother has tried leaving him numerous times but he basically threatens her to the point that he has emotionally crippled her. He does not have friends only people who he uses or can offer him something to gain power. My mother separated from him for 8 years after she found out he had molested my little sister. She already knew he molested me. I am 17 years older than her though and have been working on healing myself for over 2 decades in therapy. He preys on weaker people than him and I used to be but I am now a giant in comparison to his sickness. But he lies, lives a few different lives and has mind controlled my mom, brother and sister. He won’t accecpt help and has a brother who owns a law firm so anything he does illegally he can have ” handled”. He and my mother together conspired to kidnap my only child 5 years ago and have denied me access claiming I am a danger to her and use illegal drugs and am constantly around dangerous men. I have not used drugs or alcohol for almost three years and my husband is not dangerous, my father is. He abused my mother when they were young. Abused our dog. Has that frozen Joker smile all the time when nothing is funny. He is frightening. I think the community he works as a doctor in should know he’s a psychopath. But I believe he will drag me into court for slander or defamation of character if I name him or where we are. He hurts his patients intentionally. He used to joke about it at the dinner table when I was a young girl still living at home and we had family meals at night. He uses a machine that sends a current of electricity into his patients injured muscle or tendon and its to test how much damage has been done or occurred. He would crack himself up relaying stories about how he wouldn’t go gradually up with the strength of the current of electricity. He would just turn it all the way to ten and watch his patients jump. Making fun of” the pussies who wouldn’t even speak up for themselves” even though he was with intention hurting them. I would pray he would just shut up and stop talking and hope he hadn’t hurt anyone. Then ironically, 20 years later my husband’s aunt just happened to go to him 1 time and she had the exact same story but SHE was the patient. He justified it by explaining that everyone wants a free workmans comp handout so rather than wasting their time or his he was showing them their muscle/ tendon was just fine. The fact that they felt so much pain meant the tissue wasn’t dead or dying or too badly damaged and they could work. That’s just one night of table talk . He is a monster. He treats his wife terribly. He humiliates my brother who will take ANY attention from him he can get even if it’s negative, it’s still attention. He is never happy. He is always drinking. He will not allow me access to my 7 year old daughter whom he kidnapped in 2010 from New York where I lived. We are now going to appeals court. He has unlimited funds. I was left an inheritance when my grandfather died and my dad disappeared it with the help of his brother who owns a Law firm. So I couldn’t hire a lawyer. I miss my little girl so much , they even refuse phone calls. They created the abandonment they said I am guilty of by denying me access. My mother probably just wants to be with my daughter because being alone with him willale her go mad. But she’s a grown wan with three children of her own. I think she can navigate. Although she has alienated everyone in her life in order to play ” mommy” to her granddaughter”I have FAITH that God sees and knows all and my little girl is safe( my mom too) and we will be reunited. Thank you for reading. Any family lawyers out there with a SURE to win case with an excellent law suit to follow? Sincerely, HarperKallins-Linney

    1. Admin

      I’m in shock. One night of table talk is more than enough for a lifetime. I’m sorry you grew up with that, and still have it in your life. I agree, he’s a monster. You must find a lawyer who will help you get your daughter back. He should not be a doctor. He should not have your daughter. Don’t give up. I wish I had some helpful words, but I feel struck speechless. Please stay strong and continue to take care of yourself.

    2. AnnettePK

      So sorry for your victimization and the horror and abuse in your family. Why is he not in jail for molesting his daughters?

  5. Reality

    dear admin.

    what a post! thank you so much for this. i intedified the 10/15 individuals. i missed the three rapists!!! though for the two of them i had some gut feeling but i finally decided to absolve them and also i missed the two arsonists.
    Always i fwlt inside me that i could say a lot for one’s character from his eyes, as i consider them a window to the soul.
    i suppose what gives us this strucking ability is closely connected to our human instict of survival since centuries when someone should be able to discriminate fast possible threatening signals of the environment in order to survive. Also , as i kow well from my proffesional experience , human brain has so many aspects that we are still completely ignorant of . So i am sure that one day science will find an explanation for our ability to discrimainate so fast in such a big percentage around 60 % the ones who threaten our existense.
    I still remember the terrible , almost repulsive , impression that i had for the psycopath in my case at my first encounter to him in a complete neutral situation. Later , i became manipulated and i have chosen to ignore it.
    I strongly believe after all that we must ALWAYS take very seriously this kind of negative gut reaction towards somebody we first encounter . On the other hand we should not be sure for the goodness of someone who gives us a positive first impression, as it can be manipulation.

    Lots of love to you and to all the readers

    1. Admin

      I think that’s a very good idea, Reality. We must remind ourselves of the first impression we had and trust it, if it was a bad one. It’s only recently that I’m able to look back and see those first impressions clearly. I forgot them for a long time, and would swear to anyone that I didn’t sense anything weird. It wasn’t alarm bells or anything…but it was very unusual. He intrigued me — he was like an enigma made up of a thousand dichotomies. And that was before we ever spoke. That’s the only way I can describe it. It was incongruity, the sign I spoke of in “20 hidden signs of a psychopath.” I felt like I had to figure him out, like he was some complex mystery. Eventually, I did. Silly me. Next time, I want someone simple and straightforward, an open book.

      It’s not surprising you missed the rapists. I missed two out of three of them. Scary, that. It shows that we can’t count on that ability. But this is a good reminder for us to pay close attention to those first impressions! xoxo

  6. Anne

    I wasn’t sure about number 5. Number 7 could be a classic psychopath. That boyish charm and quite “innocent” face expression…..but take a closer look to his eyes. He pays lots of attention to his looks (he is even doing his eyebrows) a sign of narcissism. N13 could also be a psychopath. I don’t see any charm exposed in his pic, yet his eyes…..

    Additionally, I wasn’t sure about number 9 being a rapist, even thought he looked very dangerous and calculated to me. Number 4 looks like a malignant narcissist and is full of hate toward woman. His modus operandi may differ from that of number 10. They may also have different reasons why they became rapists. Number 15 is very hostile and subtle guy. Number 3 has equal criminal record, yet he is a different personality. He might be hot tempered or “heated head” who attacks right away and even loves to provoke argues.

    I’m not sure if I’m right, that’s however what I see. I’d love to take a deeper look into their files.

    1. Admin

      I’d like to know more about them, too. Next time I’ll have a quiz where you can “guess the diagnosis.” That would also be very interesting! Number 4 was the scariest out of the bunch to me, by the way. Your assessment of him is most likely correct.

      1. Anne

        Thank you for your reply. Now that you mention number 4 as being the most scariest for you, I had several cold shivers all over my body. He and number 9 looked most dangerous to me too. I might even explain why I had not seen number 9 as rapist. He doesn’t have a certain carnal face expression like number 4 and number 10. I see that lustful, or better said lascivious sexual desire around their mouth (lips) and chin.

        btw, the link to the Vallas at al.’s article offered in Psychology Today is not working for me.

        1. Admin

          Anne, there isn’t a link because the article is only available if you purchase it. Sorry about that.

  7. Klarissa

    Unassuming, meek, humble….all words I would use to describe the one I was involved in. I just got shivers down my spine!

    1. Adelyn Birch

      Yep! Exactly how mine portrayed himself… at first. In fact, a long-time police detective involved in our social group told me to avoid him because he was “intimidating.” I was so perplexed that I was rendered speechless. It seemed as if he were talking about someone else.

  8. Phryne

    I have to remark on your advice to not trust your gut unless it tells you to run.

    One time, during the love-bombing stage, I was walking with my psycho on a country road. We were on our way to the house of some friends, and the road was very rough, so we parked on the side of the road and walked back to their house, which was very isolated, and on a very isolated road.

    As we were walking, suddenly…and I mean SUDDENLY, out of NOWHERE…I was hit with the most horrible wave of panic I have ever felt. I was suddenly convinced that he was going to kill me and hide my body out there somewhere, where no one would ever find me. And I had an all-but-overwhelming urge to simply RUN, and get as far away from him as fast as I possibly could.

    And I couldn’t understand it. This was that man I loved, and I thought he loved me. So I thought I must be projecting. I thought there was something wrong with me, and I felt terrible about myself for thinking such thoughts about him, so I resisted the urge to run, although it was not easy. Only later, after had I learned what he really was, did what happened to me make sense.

    p.s. I am not the only person to experience “inexplicable” panic in his presence. One of his former friends with whom I used to be acquainted ran for his life away from him and ended up miles and miles away, bruised, exhausted and in bad enough shape to be put in the hospital.

    1. Adelyn Birch

      If that ever happens again, Phryne, please RUN! Your story reminds me of something that happened to me. The P asked me if I wanted to go out on the lake on his boat–something we did on a regular basis, and I always had a great time–and I was suddenly overcome by the certainty that he was going to kill me. I said, “why? so you can hit me over the head and throw me overboard?” He just kept right on smiling and said, “we always have fun, c’mon, let’s go!” I mean, if he was normal and his GF suddenly got the idea she was going to be murdered, wouldn’t he have said “WTF are you talking about?!” I didn’t go with him that night, or ever again.

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