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Why do faces play such a prominent role in interactions and decision-making? In Macbeth, King Duncan reflects on how he had completely trusted the Thane of Cawdor who he then had sent to the gallows for treason; the King lamented that “There’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face.”

The insights of Shakespeare confirm what science knows today—it is hard to judge character from the face. Why then did evolution select us to have this capacity, insofar as evaluating faces, and here I am talking about individuals who do not have any obvious genetic defects? We know that children can predict who will win a highstakes election race merely on the basis of facial appearance of the candidates— however, there is nothing in one’s face that signals competence. CEO remuneration and their perceived competence are strongly correlated; however, perceived competence plays no causal role in firm performance. Judgments of intelligence do not correlate will with actual intelligence. Worse, individuals pay inordinate attention to the face (e.g., its trustworthiness) even when objective performance history (e.g., whether the person has been altruistic or selfish in the past) is available. Also, perceivers appear rather sure about their assessments of others based on appearances; and that there is agreement across perceivers gives them reason to believe that one is able “judge the book by its cover.” Why would evolution appear to program us with the wrong scripts?

When encountering a person we do not look at their feet, torso, or shoulders; we are compelled to first look at them in the face and instantly judge them.

Although we would expect that evolution selected certain features indicating some underlying trait or quality that can be reliable detected by perceivers, it appears that our face-processing template–which is invoked from birth—was developed for other reasons. Perhaps it was useful for sexual selection in our ancestral times, where symmetry or attractiveness was important for signalling fitness. Or perhaps as we started transitioning to large-scale societies it was important to quickly gauge the intentions of strangers from their features or emotions. Whatever the case, it seems that our genes have not played catch-up with the current cultural and technological milieu.

This mismatch is rather dysfunctional, whether it concerns voters, personnel selectors, or board of directors. Yet, it is because of science that we know what governs processing of configuration of facial features, the rules used to infer perceived qualities, and perceiver reactions to various features; we know too that there are dedicated brain regions that appear to process face signals. Thus, we know that we must supplement and overrule our first impressions if we are to evaluate others accurately.

In the past, evaluators used insights from the now discredited insights of physiognomy; yet, today, selectors still unreflectively rely on looks do not understand how their judgments can be biased because of the facial appearance of a target. More attention must be paid to insights gleaned from the evolutionary and psychological sciences to ensure we take decisions rationally and in an informed manner. Not only is it ethical to do so; it will also more economical because the most apt—and not the most apt looking— will be chosen.

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Further reading

1. Antonakis, J. & Dalgas, O. (2009). Predicting Elections: Child’s Play! Science, 323(5918): 1183.
2. Antonakis, J. & Eubanks, D. L. (2017). Looking leadership in the face. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 26(3): 270-275.
3. Todorov, A. (2017). Face Value: The Irresistible Influence of First Impressions. Princeton University Press.
4. Todorov, A., Olivola, C. Y., Dotsch, R., & Mende-Siedlecki, P. (2015). Social Attributions from Faces: Determinants, Consequences, Accuracy, and Functional Significance. Annual Review of Psychology, 66: 519-545.
5. Van Vugt, M. (2017). Evolutionary, Biological, and Neuroscience Perspectives. In J. Antonakis & D. V. Day (Eds.), The Nature of Leadership, 3nd ed. Thousand, Oaks: Sage.