Trusting A Book By Its Cover

New research reveals how faces might predict trustworthiness--and why

Feb 11, 2016, 12:00 ET from Columbia Business School

NEW YORK, Feb. 11, 2016 /PRNewswire/ -- Swipe left or swipe right? The new norm in dating comes down to a split-second decision based solely on a face and maybe one question: does this person look trustworthy enough to date? Thanks to social media and dating apps, people are asked to judge others solely on their appearance more than ever before. More and more people are judging a book by its cover, believing their instincts are correct. According to new research from Columbia Business School, they might be right more often than not—but for a surprising reason.

The study, conducted by psychologists Michael Slepian and Daniel Ames from Columbia Business School, explores the link between apparent facial trustworthiness and deceptive behavior, revealing two major findings. The authors found that trust judgments based on faces alone are more accurate than chance. Experts have debated whether quick judgments based solely on faces yield meaningful predictions of things like honesty.

"Past research is split about whether such a link exists, but we found that people who looked trustworthy were in fact more likely to act trustworthy," said Michael Slepian, co-author of the study and a professor at Columbia Business School. "Of course, not every judgment of every face is right, and people are susceptible to baseless stereotypes in judging others on appearances. But finding evidence of the link between faces and honesty led us to dig deeper into why this link might emerge."

This new research suggests that such judgments might have some reliability. In the study, one group of people judged a set of participants based only on their photographs, predicting how trustworthy they would be. Those participants then interacted, face-to-face, with other individuals, where the participants had monetary incentives to lie. Trustworthiness judgments from the photographs predicted how often the participants lied in the face-to-face interactions.

Before the live interactions in the study, where participants had incentives to lie to counterparts, the participants predicted how often they would be trusted by their counterparts. The researchers speculated that people might have "internalized impressions," sensing how others might expect them to act, and internalizing these expectations and acting consistently with them. The researchers' hunch was confirmed with the second major finding of the study. The participants' expectations of how they would be treated accounted for part of the link between their apparent facial trustworthiness and their behavior. The reason why facial appearance might predict honesty is that people often anticipate how others will judge them and they act accordingly.

"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," said Daniel Ames, co-author and a professor at Columbia Business School. "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."

The research holds implications for people judging others and for being judged. When it comes to judging someone else, that person's face might hold a signal, but it's a noisy one. The researchers stress that the major finding of the study is that people tend to live up or down to a counterpart's expectations.

"When you're in the role of evaluating someone else, you may want to send a clear signal yourself: that you hope and expect that person will act in a trustworthy way," said Slepian.

The authors offer a little more food for thought just in time for Valentine's Day that might have some rethinking their online profiles. When it comes to being judged, when all someone else has to go on is a photo, it's inevitable that they'll judge a book by its cover. To be read more completely by someone else, Ames says the implication is clear: "Give them more to go on."

To learn more about cutting-edge research being performed by Columbia Business School faculty members, please visit

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SOURCE Columbia Business School