A Trustworthy Face

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The Confidence Game

In a paper published in June, [scientists from Princeton’s Department of Psychology] suggested that our unconscious bias is a byproduct of more adaptive instincts: the features that make a face strike us as trustworthy, if exaggerated, make a face look happy – with arching inner eyebrows and upturned mouths – and an exaggerated “untrustworthy” face looks angry – with a furrowed brow and frown. In this argument, people with “trustworthy” faces simply have, by the luck of the genetic draw, faces that look a little more cheerful to us.

Just as in other cognitive shorthands, we make these judgments quickly and unconsciously – and as a result, Oosterhof and Todorov point out, we can severely and immediately misjudge people. In reality, of course, cheekbone shape and eyebrow arc have no relationship with honesty.

I found this last statement quite irksome because it is just the sort of untested assumption that leads scientists away from rude reality. Perhaps it is true – but is it tested? Why would humans evolve the tendency to trust a certain look and distrust another if there wasn’t some payoff?

The simplistic interpretation of the data is that we trust friendly faces and distrust unfriendly faces. It’s not really hard to imagine there is some logic in this. Friendly people, we intuit, are more likely to honor a social contract because relationships are more important to them.

Isn’t it possible, if not likely, that a persons facial shape, sculpted by the expression they wear, has some bearing on their tendency to be trustworthy?

Only Dorian Gray, a work of fiction, was able to avoid wearing his character on his face.