March 24, 2019 • 2 min
We are born to judge others by how they look: our brains come hardwired with a specific face- processing area, and even shortly after birth, babies would rather look at a human face than anything else. Within their first year, they become more discerning, and are more likely to attend to friendly-looking faces than those who look serious. By the time we reach adulthood, we develop a great number of stereotypes and become snap- judgement specialists, jumping to conclusions about a person’s character and status after seeing his or her face for just a tenth of a second. And we ignore considered assessments of others in favour of simple cognitive shortcuts. For example, we judge a baby-faced individual as more trustworthy, associate a chiselled jaw with dominance, or refer to a person with a big nose as a curious one. Unfair or unethical, it may be, but it makes good evolutionary sense. Ours is an ultra-social species, so being able to quickly assess whether someone is friend or foe and whether they have the power to help or hurt us is important survival information. But there is a problem. As psychologist Alexander Todorov of Princeton University points out, more often than not, our first impressions are wrong; that is, relying on our shortcuts may not always produce good results. It is not clear why, but he suggests that we meet many more strangers than our prehistoric ancestors would have, and this may play a role.