Why we should be careful about judging a book by its cover

first-impressionsWe seem to live in an age where impressions are increasingly instantaneous.  Nowhere typifies this more than the modern world of dating, where potential beaus are judged and dismissed in an instant with a swipe of our finger.

Central to this whole process is our inherent confidence in our ability to judge other people in both an incredibly short space of time and with incredibly limited information about them.

A recent study suggests that this kind of instinctive behavior is on the rise, and most of us are adamant that our instincts are correct.

Snap judgements

Whilst it’s a well trodden heuristic that we judge those we meet within a fraction of a second of first encountering them, the report suggests that this method is actually quite effective.

The study examined any link between the trustworthiness of our face, and our subsequent behaviors.  It found that these snap judgements are much better at detecting bad eggs than chance.

“Past research is split about whether such a link exists, but we found that people who looked trustworthy were in fact more likely to act trustworthy,” the authors say. “Of course, not every judgment of every face is right, and people are susceptible to baseless stereotypes in judging others on appearances. But finding evidence of the link between faces and honesty led us to dig deeper into why this link might emerge.”

When participants were asked to judge people, those judgements turned out to be a good predictor of whether those people would be honest in subsequent encounters.

Meeting expectations

The authors suggest that we tend to have ‘internalized impressions’, which is our perception of how others might want us to act.  We then do our best to act in a way that’s consistent with this.

The study found that this internalized impression feeds through to our facial expressions.  In other words, we’re anticipating how others will judge us, and then behaving accordingly.

“People with trustworthy faces acted more honestly, in part because they expected to be trusted, and wanted to live up to those expectations. Those who looked untrustworthy were somewhat more likely to lie seemingly because they sensed that they wouldn’t be trusted,” the authors say. “A lifetime of being more likely to be trusted or mistrusted on the basis of your own face could lead you to live up or down to how you expect to be treated, even if you don’t realize the role your own face is playing.”

Is it an accurate signal?

The question then becomes, how accurate a signal is our face to our behavior?  The authors suggest that it’s less of a signal than our own expectations.

So, if we expect people to be trustworthy, then they are more likely to be so, regardless of how they look.  The onus, therefore, should be on us to send a clear signal to the other person that we expect them to be honest.

So, given our predilection for making snap judgements, the key appears to be to give people as much context as possible to help them to expect us to be honest and trustworthy.

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3 thoughts on “Why we should be careful about judging a book by its cover

  1. It’s really difficult to learn to avoid making decisions based on first impressions as they say they are the lasting ones, especially for those who rely on their gut feeling every so often. I’m not saying this is the right way to behave, but sometimes the first impression is the only thing that saves you from a bad situation.

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