Science News

First impressions do count

Fri, 1st Aug 2014

Chris Smith

People are quick to judge, as researchers identify facial features that people Mona Lisaassociate with personality traits in a tenth of a second...

Writing in PNAS, York University scientist Tom Hartley and his colleagues asked human volunteers to rate 1,000 photographs taken from the Internet and assign them any of 16 different personality traits. These were then boiled down to three main attributes: dominance, approachability and attractiveness.

The researchers then used a computer to extract from the faces measurements of 65 characteristic features including the height of the jaw line, the shape of the mouth, the position and size of the eyes and so on. These measurements were then correlated by the computer to link the appearance traits to the raters' impressions.

The programme was able to teach itself, meaning that it refined its assessments as more data were entered. On this basis the team were able isolate the specific characteristics that strongly inform the impression formed by a third party. Mouth shape and area, for instance, were linked to approachability and masculine features were linked to perceived dominance and assertiveness while large eyes are linked with youthful attractiveness.

Using this information, the researchers then produced cartoon versions of faces depicting these characteristics to varying degrees to see whether humans would judge them as having the intended traits, which was indeed the case.

This shows that the first impressions we form of others - usually in under one tenth of a second - are strongly influenced by facial features. The results, says Hartley, could be used to assist film animators who want to convey and instil appropriate emotional reactions to the characters their draw amongst audiences.

There may also be a spin-off for users of online dating and social media sites too: using the system to analyse images a user intends to upload will help a person to make the best first impression. It may also be feasible to use the system to provide biofeedback to individuals eager to improve their image. "You can predict election results from looking at the faces of politicians," says Hartley. "So we know that the face you present makes a big difference to the generalisations that people make about you."


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No need for artificial systems! When I was online dating, I just looked at hundreds of photos and picked out the ones that looked "intelligent". 95% of the women I selected by this method turned out to have a Masters or Doctorate (one had started two PhDs but been interrupted by babies), which was remarkable as less than 10% of women in my age cohort (60+ at the time) went on to postgraduate studies. I also got a better-than-chance score in differentiating between singles, divorcees and widows from a single photograph.

The question in my mind is whether something of our inherent nature is reflected in the shape and expression of our faces, or whether life leaves its mark. alancalverd, Fri, 1st Aug 2014

Re: "dominance"

Testosterone shapes the face and causes dominant behaviour,
so there would be an association between facial appearance and dominance ... RD, Fri, 1st Aug 2014

Certainly when thinking of women's faces, there is also makeup, and how they choose to "decorate" the face.

I suppose with men it is also true that one would consider the choice of hair styles, tattoos, slender, muscular, beards, mustaches,  etc. 

Is it possible that two groups would interpret a face entirely differently?

One group might consider certain attributes to be an elitist/snob, and another group may find it extraordinarily attractive.

I'll probably have to track down the 16 core personality traits. CliffordK, Fri, 1st Aug 2014

I wonder if they also did a personality test to see if people actually matched the traits that were attributed to them. CliffordK, Sat, 2nd Aug 2014

A while ago I saw a study where people were asked to guess who the winner of an election was based solely on their photos and no other information (and no prior knowledge of the actual election) and they were right about 72% of the time. The researchers concluded that there are facial characteristics that people associate with things like trustworthiness or competence. cheryl j, Mon, 4th Aug 2014

It's the first parameter mind takes to judge the personality.  elizbathjames, Fri, 8th Aug 2014

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