Your Competence Is Judged Within Seconds Based on Your Facial Features

First impressions are formed within one-tenth of a second after seeing someone's face. But some people infer more from these first impressions than others, a study published by the Royal Society suggests.

"Studies have highlighted that face impressions are determined by global face characteristics—combinations of multiple facial features—rather than by local facial features," study leader Atsunobu Suzuki told Newsweek. "For instance, happier and more feminine-looking faces tend to be perceived as more trustworthy, and more masculine-looking faces tend to be perceived as less trustworthy."

Facial bias, also known as face-ism, is not as simple as assuming that people with thin lips or big eyes are more or less trustworthy, Suzuki said. Rather, people make these conclusions based on their overall impression of a person's face.

Facial analysis
A stock image shows a man having his face scanned. We often form snap judgments when we meet someone based on their facial characteristics. Prostock-Studio/Getty

Suzuki and his team asked 312 participants to complete two rounds of surveys. The first was to assess the participants' belief in established stereotypes, while the second was to analyze the extent to which participants made judgments on personality traits based on facial features.

The study did not find that participants perceived females to be more or less competent than males, but this entrenched cultural bias can still play out when judgments are made based on facial features alone. "Studies have shown that feminine facial appearance and babyfacedness are negatively related to competence judgments," Suzuki said.

That said, if you are good-looking you might just get around this negative perception. Previous studies have identified a so-called halo effect of attractiveness, Suzuki said, although this was not analyzed in the present study. "People with attractive faces tend to be judged as having desirable traits, [like] trustworthiness and competence," he said.

Whether this tendency for facial bias is innate or learned is up for debate. "Origins of the biases may differ depending on the types of face judgments," Suzuki said. "For example, human tendency to perceive happy-looking faces as trustworthy may have some innate basis, whereas the association between facial femininity and low competence should probably reflect culture-specific gender stereotypes."

A study in 2009 found that faces with smaller foreheads, wider jaws, larger noses and smaller eyes tended to be more masculine, while larger eyes, shorter faces and fuller lips were seen as more feminine.

In the present study, Suzuki and his team found that some people are quicker to judge people on the basis of their faces than others. Both reflective and impulsive individuals were subject to these biases. "The major finding of this study is that those who make extreme face-based judgments on a certain trait, like trustworthiness, also tend to make extreme judgments on other traits, like competence," Suzuki said.

This habit can have serious real-world implications when it comes to important decision making, like who to vote for or whether a suspect is guilty of a crime.

"We believe that this finding is important because such individuals should be a prime target for intervention to reduce the biasing impact of facial appearance on interpersonal judgments and choices," Suzuki said.