From the first moment you walk into a room people are making judgements about how much they like you. Fortunately, there are ways to improve your chances
Editor’s Note (December 21, 2017): Through to the end of the year, BBC Capital is bringing back some of your favourite stories from 2017.
Most of us have come across them at some point – the kind of people who can walk into a room full of strangers but then leave with 10 new friends, a lunch date for the next day, and the promise of an introduction to an industry insider.
Charmers. What makes these lucky individuals so effortlessly likeable when many of us have to work so hard at it? While many would have you believe social grace or winning people over is something of an artform, there is a surprising amount of science behind it too.
The factors that determine our success with other people, and the impressions we make upon them, can start even before we meet them. Research has proven the people we meet often make judgements about us based purely on the way we look. Alexander Todorov, a professor of psychology at Princeton, has shown that people can make judgements about someone’s likeability, trustworthiness and competence after seeing their face for less than a tenth of a second.
“While some things, like dominance, are highly related to morphological features, there are things like trustworthiness and even attractiveness which are highly dependent on facial expressions,” says Todorov, whose book Face Value: The Irresistible Influence of First Impressions explores this phenomenon.
Making a snap judgement on something so superficial might seem rash, but we do it all the time without even realising. And it can have serious implications. For example, it might influnce who you vote for. One study showed that facial appearance can be used to predict the outcome of elections to the US Senate. Similarly, facial characteristics associated with competence have also been successful in predicting the outcomes of elections involving Bulgarian, French, Mexican and Brazilian politicians.
The judgements we make about someone’s face can influence our financial decisions too. In one experiment, borrowers who were perceived as looking less trustworthy were less likely to get loans on a peer-to-peer lending site. Lenders were making these judgements based on appearance in spite of having information about the borrowers employment status and credit history at their fingertips.
Put on a happy face
Of course, while you may not be able to control the physical features of your face, it is possible to alter your expressions and smile. Todorov has used data-driven statistical models to build algorithms that can manipulate faces to look more or less trustworthy, allowing him to tease out the features that we trust the most.
According to his work, as a face becomes happier, it also becomes more trustworthy.
People will perceive a smiling face as more trustworthy, warmer and sociable
“People will perceive a smiling face as more trustworthy, warmer and sociable,” explains Todorov. “One of the major inputs to these impressions is emotional expression. If you look at our models and and manipulate the faces to become more trustworthy or extroverted, you see the emotional expression emerge—the face becomes happy.”
For those situations where our first impression has not been as good as we might have hoped, there is also hope – we can still win people over so they forget that initial snap judgement.