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Columbia Uncovers How Honest Faces Often Correlate With Credibility

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Columbia Business School (CBS) recently announced via press release its fascinating research into the relationship between faces perceived as trustworthy and whether or not those faces can actually be trusted. Columbia Business School professors and psychologists Daniel Ames and Michael Slepian explain that our knee-jerk rulings of certain faces are more often than not accurate but for reasons one might not expect.

In the press release, Slepian explains, “We found that people who looked trustworthy were in fact more likely to act trustworthy. Finding evidence of the link between faces and honesty led us to dig deeper into why this link might emerge.”

In Ames and Slepian’s clinical survey, the duo requested that one collection of test subjects evaluate photos of individuals based on their perceived level of trustworthiness. This group of test subjects engaged in person with a different set of participants than the ones featured in the photos. In advance of the face-to-face engagements, the participants predicted the frequency at which the test subjects would trust them. These in-the-flesh participants also had financial motivation to avoid telling the truth.

Ames and Slepian ventured that most of us have internalized expectations of how people expect us to behave and we act in accordance with these impressions. Confirming the psychologists’ suspicions, they found that the value judgments that test subjects made based on faces they encountered in the photos were a reliable prediction for how frequently the other group would lie in person.

The expectations that participants had for how test subjects would engage them correlated with their behavior based on others’ perceptions of their level of “facial trustworthiness.” It turns out that faces are accurate predictors of credibility because people tend to act in accordance with the judgments of others that they have learned to anticipate.

Ames elaborates in the Columbia press release:

“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. 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.”

While the findings propose that faces may or may not convey certain signals, both Ames and Slepian insist that the major conclusion of the research relates less to signals that we subconsciously evaluate and more to the cumulative, internalized responses to others’ expectations.

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