We can alter our facial features in ways that make us look more trustworthy, but don’t have the same ability to appear more competent. A face resembling a happy expression, with upturned eyebrows and upward curving mouth is likely to be seen as trustworthy while one resembling an angry expression, with downturned eyebrows, is likely to be seen as untrustworthy. However, competence judgments are based on facial structure, a trait that cannot be altered, with wider faces seen as more competent.
Selfies, headshots, mug shots photos of oneself convey more these days than snapshots ever did back in the Kodak era. Most digitally minded people continually post and update pictures of themselves at professional, social media and dating sites such as LinkedIn, Facebook, Match.com and Tinder. For better or worse, viewers then tend to make snap judgments about someone’s personality or character from a single shot. As such, it can be a stressful task to select the photo that conveys the best impression of us.
A newly published series of experiments by cognitive neuroscientists at New York University is reinforcing the relevance of facial expressions to perceptions of characteristics such as trustworthiness and friendliness. More importantly, the research also revealed the unexpected finding that perceptions of abilities such as physical strength are not dependent on facial expressions but rather on facial bone structure.
The facial expressions strongly influence perception of traits such as trustworthiness, friendliness or warmth, but not ability (strength, in these experiments). Conversely, facial structure influences the perception of physical ability but not intentions (such as friendliness and trustworthiness, in this instance). In addition, decisions that involve guessing at the possible intentions of a person such as to whom you would entrust your money management are more strongly influenced by facial expression, whereas those based on physical ability such as whom you would bet on in a sporting event are more strongly influenced by facial structure.
The perceptions of the same person can vary greatly depending on that person’s facial expression in any given moment. We might consider the impact of our facial expressions in the photos we post online. At the same time, in an ideal world people who look at our photos would give us the benefit of the doubt and hesitate to make spontaneous judgments based only on a single image.
In our everyday lives this study and others make clear that although we might try to influence others’ perceptions of us with photos showing us donning sharp attire or displaying a self-assured attitude, the most important determinant of others’ perception of and consequent behavior toward us is our faces.
So the next time you want to win someone’s trust, try a smile and a happy face. But for those folks hoping to get picked for a pick-up game of football, basketball and so on, don’t worry about your facial expression. The best you can do is hope you have a wider face and then let your physical prowess speak for itself.