Studies show we make snap judgements about people based on their facial features – but cosmetic procedures can change the way we’re perceived
Do you keep getting passed up for promotion? Do you ace interviews but never win the job? It might not be because you’re under qualified; it could simply be the case that your face doesn’t fit.
According to a study conducted by psychology researchers at the University of York in England, first impressions are based on a person’s facial features – and once those ideas are fixed, it can be hard to change them.
For example, an employer might make assumptions about your competence and ability based on your face alone. These pre-conceived ideas could hold you back from climbing the career ladder even when you demonstrate good work.
How do we judge faces?
When we perceive an individual’s face we make a variety of relatively objective assessments, including the person’s age, sex, and often their emotional state - this process is called facial profiling. However, inferences are also made about social traits; for example, certain people may appear more trustworthy than others.
Although there are many different character judgements we can make, they can be boiled down to three main categories – approachability, youthful-attractiveness and dominance.
Approachability and dominance help us decide if someone is a friend or a foe and where we stand in the pecking order next to that individual. Youthful-attractiveness, meanwhile, helps us decide if someone is a good romantic partner or, perhaps, a rival.
These traits can be ‘read’ from a glimpse as brief as 100 milliseconds or less, and brain activity appears to track social traits, such as trustworthiness, even when no explicit evaluation is required, indicating that it is likely outside of conscious control.
What features do we look at?
According to the researchers, there are 65 separate factors that can influence our assessment of social traits. These include the size and shape of the face as a whole, individual facial features (e.g. bottom lip curvature), their spatial arrangement (e.g. mouth-to-chin distance), the presence/absence of glasses and facial hair, and information about the texture and colour of specified regions.
This conclusion was drawn after participants were asked to score 1,000 face photos for 16 different social traits, like trustworthiness or intelligence. The researchers then measured the physical attributes of all 1,000 faces and put them together with those scores, in order to build a mathematical model of how the dimensions of a face produce different impressions.They found, for example, that the five features most strongly positively correlated with approachability are all linked to the mouth and mouth shape. So, if you have a large, wide mouth, with an upward curving bottom lip you are likely to be regarded as friendly and approachable.
They believed the model could accurately predict first impressions and, to put it to the test, produced a set of computer-generated faces and asked more participants to rate them.
The ratings matched i.e. a computer-generated ‘unapproachable’ face was indeed rated as unapproachable by the human participants.
Can we change the first impression our face creates?
While it might seem unfair that our facial features can cause people to make assumptions about our character, making small changes to our appearance can change the way we’re perceived.
This was proven by a study conducted by researchers at Georgetown University, Washington, USA, which examined changes in personality perception following facial rejuvenation surgery.To do this, they took before and after photographs of 30 women who had undergone cosmetic treatments including facelifts, upper and lower eye bag surgery, eyebrow lifts, neck lifts and chin implants.
Groups of ‘raters’, unknown to the women, were asked to rate each photograph for six personality traits - aggressiveness, extroversion, likeability, trustworthiness, risk seeking, and social skills - as well as for attractiveness and femininity.
Results showed that all of the women were rated higher postoperatively for four of the eight traits – likeability, social skills, attractiveness and femininity.
Interestingly, it didn’t make a difference what procedure the patient had undergone. Regardless of whether they’d had a neck lift, an eye lift or a chin augmentation, they were all deemed to have better personalities, being viewed as more sociable and more likeable.
It appears that improving our appearance in general can make a better impression on strangers. However, cosmetic surgery can also tackle specific features that might be holding us back. Take for example, a downward sagging mouth that makes you appear surly, or droopy eyes, which cause you to look less intelligent or even untrustworthy.
Making a small change to your face can completely change the way you look, and subsequently the way people behave towards you. If you want to advance in your career, altering a detrimental facial feature could make employers look at you differently.