First impressions lead to a multitude of assumptions, and trustworthiness is one of them. Research suggests that faces with v-shaped eyebrows and frowning mouths are consistently judged as less trustworthy than others with ^-shaped brows and mouths with upturned corners (this may be related to the former betraying a hidden anger and the latter having a more positive undertone).
A study published this month by Dr Brian Holtz in the journal Personnel Psychology suggests that a person's looks can influence perceptions, not only of how trustworthy their character might be, but of whether their actual deeds are fair and well-intentioned.
In an ideal world, we'd trust people based upon what they say and do, and use that track record to evaluate whether their subsequent actions were in good faith. These new results suggest that often isn't so - instead, our superficial impressions influence how we evaluate their behaviour.
The first study presented data on an imaginary company to 609 people recruited through an online portal, all of whom had experience of being in work. They were asked to evaluate a decision made by the chief executive (CEO) to cut pay by 15 per cent for all staff (including the CEO himself) in order to avoid cut-backs in tough economic times. A challenge faced by a growing number of oil companies today in the North Sea and beyond.
Participants felt more trust towards the CEO and judged the decision as fairer when the CEO's biography included a facial photo previously rated as highly 'trustworthy' by others, rather than a one rated as 'untrustworthy' one.
In the lead-up to this evaluation, participants were asked if there were other solutions to the financial crisis, and if so, if they could have been fairer. When they thought the CEO had a trustworthy face, they were less likely to believe there were fairer alternatives he could have taken. In both this and a subsequent replication, this doubt in viable alternative options mediated how strongly the photo drove trust in the CEO's behaviour.
This is fascinating. It suggests that a gut feeling, based on physical appearance, could have consequences for how we intellectually review a situation.
When we assume that certain facial characteristics can mark someone out as special - more electable, fit for higher rank, or a better leader. Other evidence has illustrated the importance of genuine smiles and even physical height on career success.
But whereas it's easy to be accepting about the inevitability of some of these effects - the fact that the face of the communicator of your organisation's salary cuts, or redundancy programme, in the current climate could make a real difference is interesting research and worth employers taking note of who should be the face of their redundancy or cost reduction programme.