Wednesday, November 14, 2012

At First Glance

by Sandra Parshall

The cover image on the December issue of Psychology Today was enough to make me stop and pick it up: a photo of a beautiful young woman with descriptive words written on her face – sensual, bold, arrogant, witty, smart, eager, etc.

The cover leads to a thought-provoking article about the accuracy of our first impressions of other people. Can we really tell at a glance what a stranger is like? Do snap judgments hold up under scrutiny?

Turns out the answer is yes more often than no. And that’s puzzling. Many studies have demonstrated that eye-witness testimony in criminal cases is unreliable because people often don’t remember details of a stranger’s appearance even a few minutes later. Yet Jena Pincott, author of the Psychology Today article, has assembled results of numerous studies, conducted by reputable researchers, that seem to prove we can often make accurate judgments about others the minute we see their faces.

As Ms. Pincott points out, quick impressions aren’t fail-safe, but they are too accurate – 60 percent or more of the time in controlled studies, considerably higher than chance – to dismiss. Many of us wear our true natures on our faces, and a perceptive person will probably recognize us for what we are.

What interested me most, of course, was an experiment at Cornell University to determine whether volunteers could identify criminals by looking at photos of their faces. Participants showed better-than-chance accuracy at distinguishing criminals from non-criminals. However, they were less successful at separating violent offenders from nonviolent criminals. And women consistently identified convicted rapists as harmless – unlikely to ever commit a crime. Why? The researchers who conducted the Cornell experiment theorize that rapists, for whatever reason, don’t always present the clues that would, consciously or unconsciously, trigger a woman’s defenses and make her more difficult to approach and assault. They are the exceptions.

What are those subtle clues that tell others what kind of people we are? Because sex hormones affect both our behavior and appearance in powerful ways, traits such as aggressiveness and heightened sexuality may show in the contours of the face and features. But it’s not all due to nature. Life experience and repeated behavior, good or bad, may alter our faces in subtle ways too.                                                  

The article also looks at experiments testing the accuracy of “gaydar” (on the mark 60 to 70 percent of the time). Then there’s the question of whether attractive people are judged positively because they’re nice to look at or because a majority of them really do have high intelligence, great personalities, and kind hearts. If you don’t count yourself among the beautiful, the answer may leave you gnashing your teeth at the unfairness of it all.

Do you make snap judgments of people when you meet them – and are you usually right? – or do you hold off until you have more information?

25 comments:

Steven M. Moore said...

Hi Sandra,
An interesting post in so many ways!
One is that it touches on another issue more related to writing. Beyond first impressions, I think many writers are people-watchers--amateur psychologists, if you will. Any skill I have for describing characters, for example, owes much to what I've learned watching people.
For first impressions, the type of impression might be highly correlated to its reliability. I do well in determining whether someone is BS-prone or vain, but I do worse in detecting whether that first meeting can lead to a lasting friendship. Maybe the difficulty lies in whether I have a personal stake in the assessment.
All the best,
Steve

jenny milchman said...

I don't know how I'd rate! I'd really like to, though.

Sandra Parshall said...

The full article in Psychology Today is fascinating and well worth reading. We hear about an individual experiment of this kind now and then, and it may register vaguely, but when you read a summary of numerous experiments that point to the same conclusion, it makes you stop and think about the way people relate to one another. I suspect that our ability to "read" other people's faces has a lot to do with our own natures. Surely a totally self-absorbed person will be oblivious to subtle cues on other faces. As you say, Steve, writers are outward-focused observers, constantly soaking up the world -- and the people -- around us. Most of us would probably score highly on a test of first impressions.

Jenny, maybe you could volunteer yourself for an experiment. :-)

Leslie Budewitz said...

So interesting that we make fairly accurate emotional connections & judgments at a glance, even though we are not so good at remembering features ... . Thanks for mentioning this -- it's an article I'd like to read.

Ann Littlewood said...

60% accuracy is interesting, but not of much practical value. The error margin is too large. I'd like to think that one of the lessons from life experience is to be cautious about snap judgments. I'd also like to point out that most criminals come from lower socioeconomic levels and that may be part of what people are picking up. Nothing like bad teeth to make a person look like a crook!

Sandra Parshall said...

Ann, the article goes into some detail about the influence of testosterone on the shape of the head, size of features, etc., and the prevalence of those indicators of high testosterone in convicted criminals. If the person is habitually angry or aggressive, that will show in the eyes, the set of the mouth and jaw, etc. Those are the clues people are picking up. Put it all together on face and you get a definite warning signal. But the same is not true of rapists, which I find totally fascinating!

Joanne Guidoccio said...

Hi Sandra,

Excellent post! I will make a point of reading the full article in Psychology Today.

Joanne

Marilyn Levinson said...

Sandy,
Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time is about her sleuth's studying a picture of Richard 111 and finding him innocent of having murdered his nephews. Studying faces to determine a person's psychological make up was one of Tey's interests. It must have been a popular theory in those days.

Kaye George said...

That's scary stuff about not being able to detect rapists. But these were pictures, I think. In person, that might change. I'd like to see a study of judging faces from the actual person. I wonder what difference that would make.

Anonymous said...

I agree with one of the comments above - some writers have a natural gift in seeing the real person in the face or expressions. Just as some people have quick insight into people. This is a gift, as a talent for drawing or dance. But it can be learned, to some extent. Current information on biometrics is worth study, if you want to develop your assessment of people. Thelma straw in Manhattan

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