How Facial Features Drive our First Impressions

Posted by on July 29, 2014 in Nature, Psychology-Psychiatry, Sci-Tech, Science with 0 Comments
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Jonathan Webb |  BBC

face readingWhether it’s a curled lip or a keen cheekbone, we all make quick social judgements based on strangers’ faces.

Now scientists have modelled the specific physical attributes that underpin our first impressions.

Small changes in the dimensions of a face can make it appear more trustworthy, dominant or attractive.

The results, published in the journal PNAS, could help film animators or anyone looking to create an instant impression on a social network.

Dr Tom Hartley, a neuroscientist at the University of York and the study’s senior author, said the work added mathematical detail to a well-known phenomenon.

“If people are forming these first impressions, just based on looking at somebody’s face, what is it about the image of the face that’s giving that impression – can we measure it exactly?”

Three key dimensions of a first impression

  • Approachability: how likely is this person to help (or hinder) me?
  • Dominance: how capable is this person of carrying out those intentions?
  • Attractiveness: is this person young and good looking – a potential romantic partner?

Positive first impressions are especially important in a world dominated by social media, from LinkedIn to Tinder.

Dr Hartley sees the commercial potential in applying his numerical model to the photos people use to present themselves online. “It’s obviously potentially very useful,” he told the BBC.

To make the calculations, each of 1,000 face photos from the internet was shown to at least six different people, who gave it a score for 16 different social traits, like trustworthiness or intelligence.

Overall, these scores boil down to three main characteristics: whether a face is (a) approachable, (b) dominant, and (c) attractive.

By measuring the physical attributes of all 1,000 faces and putting them together with those scores, Dr Hartley and his team built a mathematical model of how the dimensions of a face produce those three impressions.

The next step was to get the computer to extrapolate. Using their new model, the team produced cartoon versions of the most (and least) approachable, dominant and attractive faces – as well as all the possibilities in between.

Example faces
Six faces and their computerised approximations, including study author Dr Tom Hartley (second from left)
John Humphrys
The same treatment given to the Today programme’s John Humphrys
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“Start Quote

You could use these kind of numbers to decide when is a good time to take a photograph, or to choose the photograph that’s really optimal in putting forward the best possible impression”

Dr Tom HartleyUniversity of York

Finally, and most importantly, these cartoon results could be tested. When the researchers quizzed more participants about their impressions of the artificial, cartoon faces, the ratings matched. People said that the computer’s cartoon prediction of an approachable face was, indeed, approachable – and so on.

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