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?