WORK-LIFE BALANCE / FEB. 13, 2015
version 2, draft 2

How Our Face Influences How Trustworthy We Are

A little while ago I looked at the prickly topic of how our faces are likely to influence our success or failure in life. We tend to rapidly make judgements on those we meet, with the face being one of the quickest means of doing this. The study found that when people had the right kind of face we were much more likely to afford them the benefit of the doubt than unfortunate folks with the wrong kind of face.

A second study, conducted by researcher Brian Holtz, has attempted to build on this finding and explore what it is about our face that so influences the way we perceive other people. His study suggests that the way we look influences the perceptions people have of us, including things like how trustworthy we are, and indeed how fair or well intentioned we might be.

It’s all a bit alarming as, of course, one would think that trust is based less upon how someone looks as to how they act and behave towards us and other people. The findings from this study suggest that this is often very far from the case.

The research showed participants data on a fictional company before asking each of them to make a decision on whether the CEO should cut pay for all of the employees at the company by 15 percent to try and survive the recession they found themselves in.

Interestingly, it emerged that participants were easier in their judgement of the CEO when his biography included a photo of a person who had previously been rated as a highly trustworthy individual.

Prior to completing this task, each participant was asked if there were potentially other solutions to the financial crisis and whether any of these might have been fairer than the pay cut proposed by the CEO. It transpired that when the CEO was deemed fair, the participants were less likely to believe there to be any better alternative available.

This finding was replicated in a second experiment, which led the authors to believe that it was indeed the photo that was underpinning the faith people had in the CEO. It underlines the crucial role our gut instinct plays in how we perceive other people and indeed how seemingly unimportant things like the facial features of that person are critical to how those instincts are formed.

It’s particularly alarming as it could fulfil the so-called Pygmalion effect whereby our perceptions of someone strongly influences how that person subsequently performs. That was proved in a class environment when teachers were duped into thinking their pupils were high (or low) performers and their subsequent grades matched this perception, regardless of their aptitude prior to the experiment.

If we believe someone to be trustworthy therefore by virtue of their facial features, it’s likely to become self-fulfilling that this person will become trustworthy, in our own eyes at least.

It all reinforces how shallow some of our perceptions are, however, and certainly how unconscious they are. Despite our belief that we think and behave in a rational way, the evidence often suggests the exact opposite.

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