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Hint: It has to do with your face! ((Photo: HEX/Corbis)
No doubt you want to appear trustworthy to the people you come in contact with — especially when it comes to work and your love life. And according to a new study, it’s actually possible to alter our faces in such a way to seem more trustworthy: By looking happy.
The study, published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, included a series of four experiments. Scientists presented 751 subjects with images of real faces and digitally generated faces, and asked them to rate how trustworthy and competent the faces appeared to be.
In the first experiment, subjects were shown photos of 10 adult men and were asked to rate how trustworthy and competent each face seemed. Men who looked happier were rated as more trustworthy, while those who look angrier were seen as less trustworthy. But the competence of the men was rated the same, no matter what their facial expression.
The second experiment was similar but offered up 40 computer-generated faces that evolved from “slightly happy” to “slightly angry.” The results were similar to the first experiment, but showed a range — the slightly happier a person appeared, the more likely he was to be rated as trustworthy.
The third experiment asked study participants to select which face/man they would choose to be their financial advisor (a sign that the man was trustworthy) and which they thought would be most likely to win a weightlifting competition (a sign of competence, or ability). As expected, subjects chose the happiest expressions to be their financial advisor, but they were more likely to say that men with a wider facial structure would win a weight-lifting competition.
For the last experiment, researchers used digitally altered faces to visually represent the faces of a trustworthy financial advisor or competitive weightlifter and asked participants to rate the trustworthiness and competence of each. Again, they found that happier faces seemed more trustworthy, while wider faces seemed more competent.
A face resembling a happy expression — with upturned eyebrows and an upward curving mouth — is likely to be seen as trustworthy, while one resembling an angry expression — with downturned eyebrows — is likely to be seen as untrustworthy. However, competence judgments are based on facial structure, a trait that cannot be altered, with wider faces seen as more competent. (Photo courtesy of Jonathan Freeman and Eric Hehman)
Why did researchers study trustworthiness and competence in the first place? “These aren’t arbitrary,” Jonathan Freeman, PhD, the study’s senior author and an assistant professor of psychology at New York University, tells Yahoo Health. “There’s been a lot of work suggesting that when we look at a face, we size people up on these two dimensions.”
Freeman’s research suggests that while we can appear more trustworthy when we look happy, our ability to appear competent is pretty much out of our hands (since it’s impossible to widen our faces). But, of course, “happy” is somewhat open to interpretation. What exactly goes into a “happy” expression?
According to Freeman, we convey happiness the most via our eyes and mouth — specifically, with upturned eyebrows and an upward-curving mouth. As a result, the less furrowed our eyebrows and the more the corners of our mouths turn up, the more trustworthy we seem.
The reverse is true for untrustworthiness — the more your eyebrows are furrowed and the corners of your mouth turn down, the less trustworthy you seem.
But this is also true for more neutral expressions: If the corners of your mouth are slightly turned down and your eyebrows are slightly furrowed, you run the risk of coming across as less trustworthy, even if you’re not trying to make a face at all.
So what’s the deal with the conveyance of competence? Freeman says impressions of competence are specifically linked to a person’s height to facial width ratio, but the relationship between the two is less clear for women. Meaning, if you’re a woman with a wider face, people won’t automatically perceive you as being more competent.
We don’t just judge each other on competence and trustworthiness based on our facial cues, though. Freeman says we tend to link happier faces with likeability, warmth, friendliness, and extroversion, and wider faces with dominance.
But while we pick up a lot of cues about people from their faces, Freeman stresses that there’s a difference between perception and reality: “Whether any of these perceptions are accurate is a whole separate question.”
Freeman says he’s hoping his research will raise awareness of how important subtle facial cues can be, both when you’re being judged and how you judge others.
So, next time you’re in a job interview or out on a date, make sure to smile — it could make a huge difference.
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