Little Kids Quickly Learn to Judge a Face

A Harvard study reveals that, like adults, children make snap decisions about people based on their facial features.

In the study, subjects judged digitally created faces for their trustworthiness and other characteristics.

We've all looked at someone's face and thought: "Now there's someone I can really trust." Or perhaps: "I wouldn't trust him with a wooden nickel." To the surprise of social scientists, children as young as three make the same sort of judgments based on nothing more than facial features. That's what researchers found in a new study published in Psychological Science.

Mahzarin Banaji, Emily Cogsdill, and Elizabeth Spelke of Harvard and Alexander Todorov of Princeton showed pairs of faces to 99 adults and 141 children ages three to 10. Each pair of faces was designed to connect to one of three adjectives: trustworthy, dominant, or competent. (For kids, the terms used were mean/nice, strong/not strong, smart/not smart.)

The researchers expected the adults to be pretty much in agreement in picking who was trustworthy, dominant, and competent or not. And they were. The rate of consensus was in the 80 to 95 percent range. But they didn't expect a similar trend among the kids.

"We were dumbstruck when we found very young children have these preferences by age three," says psychology professor Banaji. Children aren't born with such biases, and the researchers imagined that "it was a slow process" to develop them.

But in the study, the kids basically reached the same conclusions as the adults, and, depending on the category, 65 to 97 percent of the children made the same calls. The lower range was for faces that were judged as strong/not strong. The upper number was for whether faces seemed mean or nice. "We would not have expected to see that data showing that [preferences] are present in near-adultlike forms pretty early," Banaji says.

The faces were computer-generated, designed by Todorov to remove distractions and to reflect what we already know about how faces are perceived. They were all men, to avoid gender bias, and they were all bald so that hair could not sway a subject's choice. From previous studies, researchers know that a person with a more feminine or childlike face, with eyes tilted upward, is considered more trustworthy than a person with a thick neck, jutting jaw, and heavy brow. So they used such traits to stack the deck.

Cute Equals Nice?

"It's hard to know exactly where this is coming from," says psychology graduate student Cogsdill of the kids' biases. Perhaps the appearances of characters on TV shows for kids, where cute equals nice, is a factor. "But we don't have a fully clear answer."

Of course, the problem with this kind of snap judgment is that you can't judge character by the face. Yet we all do.

The lesson for parents, Cogsdill says, "is to start a conversation with their children about making judgments based on appearances." Parents might also look for storybooks where the ugly duckling turns out to be the hero.

More research needs to be done to figure out the origins of this kind of facial bias. One way might be to look at whether primates have the same types of biases about other primates' faces. "You look at a bunch of monkey faces on the web and you might think, 'That's one mean monkey,'" says Banaji.

What about humans who have a face that, even at rest, looks unhappy? Cogsdill notes that the Internet snarkily discusses something called "resting bitch face"—people who, without trying to express any emotion, look angry or mean all the time. Would it help to make an effort to smile? "There's no data speaking to that," says Cogsdill (presumably with a smile), "but it seems reasonable to expect."

In the study, children and adults were shown pairs of computer-generated faces and asked to identify which of the pair was nicer, stronger, or smarter.

Click on the faces below to see how your preferences compare to those of the study participants.