August 24 2006 - Recent research indicates that when we see an unfamiliar face, our brains decide intuitively whether a person is attractive and trustworthy within a tenth of a second - so quickly that reason may play no part in the process.
The study by Princeton University assistant professor of psychology Alex Todorov and research student Janine Willis published in the July 2006 issue of Psychological Science asked about 200 observers to look at 66 different faces flashed onto a screen for one of three time durations: 100 milliseconds, 500 milliseconds or a full second.
The observers recorded whether they found the face to be trustworthy or not, and also how confident they were in their analysis. Similar experiments tested for other traits, such as likeability, competence, and aggressiveness. Judgements made after the shortest exposure time correlated highly with those made without time constraints. With more time to decide, observers' judgements did not change, but their confidence in them increased.
Alex Todorov said:
"The link between facial features and character may be tenuous at best, but that doesn't stop our minds from sizing other people up at a glance. We decide very quickly whether a person possesses many of the traits we feel are important, such as likeability and competence, even though we have not exchanged a single word with them. It appears that we are hard-wired to draw these inferences in a fast, unreflective way."
Todorov said that it is not yet clear why the brain makes such snap judgments. However, functional magnetic resonance imaging of brain activity suggests that the part of the brain that responds directly to fear may be involved in judgments of trustworthiness.
"The fear response involves the amygdala, a part of the brain that existed in animals for millions of years before the development of the prefrontal cortex, where rational thoughts come from. We imagine trust to be a rather sophisticated response, but our observations indicate that trust might be a case of a high-level judgment being made by a low-level brain structure. Perhaps the signal bypasses the cortex altogether" Alex Todorov continued.
Alex Todorov cautioned that his findings do not imply that quick first impressions cannot be overcome by the rational mind:
"As time passes and you get to know people, you, of course, develop a more rounded conception of them. But because we make these judgments without conscious thought, we should be aware of what is happening when we look at a person's face."