“Never judge a book by its cover.” It’s a painfully overused cliché that most people would accept as sound advice, and yet, it may not even be possible to follow. Recent studies have shown that humans may be pre-disposed to making far-reaching conclusions about others based solely off of quick glances at their facial expressions. Humans cannot help but to see an advertisement splattered with images of a confident politician, sporting a striking smile and a firm handshake, and not associate some positive feelings with the person. But how potent is this innate desire to guess traits?
Researchers have found a clear link between people’s facial expressions and the stereotypes that others place on them. A key point to note, however, is that significant evidence supporting the claim that people’s snap judgments are accurate has not been found. Many researchers, including Christopher Olivola, fear that too many important decisions in life are made based off of these often erroneous judgments.
"The fact that social decisions are influenced by facial morphology would be less troubling if it were a strong and reliable indicator of people’s underlying traits," writes Olivola in a recent article. The qualities that people’s faces reflect are rarely indicative of their true traits. This means that people are making important conclusions about others based on a sample of information that is far too small.
Olivola's research has also shown that politicians with facial structures that make them appear more “competent” are far more likely to win an election. Whether those people are more experienced, received higher marks in their higher education, or even did better on their SATs, is inconsequential. On the same note, another one of his studies carried out in a historically conservative region revealed that citizens of this area tended to support those candidates whose faces appeared more “Republican,” even if the candidate was, in fact, a Democrat.
In another exciting study about cognitive neuroscience, researcher Tom Hartley and his team at the University of York have developed a computer program that can decipher a portrait and spit back what traits the person’s face would suggest to the general public that they have. The group had volunteers look at portraits and write down what traits they assumed the person possesses. By feeding this information into a computer, the team was able to develop this program. Hartley notes that the program could be used to suggest the best picture for something like a CV or online dating profile picture, because it would choose the photo that conveys the image the person would want the public to see.
In his nationally bestselling book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell offers valuable insight into the debate over whether or not a split-second glimpse of a person’s face is enough to make any useful conclusion about that person’s personality. “There can be as much value in the blink of an eye as in months of rational analysis,” states Gladwell. While he never reaches an explicit conclusion as to why exactly the human gut feeling has evolutionarily developed to be so on point, he also recognizes the importance of taking more information into account before making some important decisions.
Knowledge of this information can be useful to apply in everyday life. For the upcoming elections this November, be wary of the personality traits that campaign advertisers want you to see in their candidates. Be wise enough to look deeper into the candidate’s past accomplishments and political ideals. Campaign managers and advertisement creators are professionals at manipulating the public by putting forth images of their candidate that have been proven to effect positive reactions.
Secondly, utilize this knowledge in interviews and daily work life. Don a smile and lift your eyebrows, and you may very well leave a better impression on your interviewer or employer than you ever thought possible.
“The face is not a secondary billboard for our internal feelings," notes Gladwell. "It is an equal partner in the emotional process.” This is to say that pretending to be confident or happy by smiling and manipulating other key facial movements can, in fact, cause one to be more confident or happy. The face is powerful enough to not only fool others into thinking you are confident, but also to fool yourself. So, smile on, look confident and be happy!