A new study found that even when told whether a person was gay or straight, people identified a person’s sexual orientation based on how they looked — even if it contradicted the facts presented to them.
“We judge books by their covers, and we can’t help but do it,” said Nicholas Rule, Ph.D., of the University of Toronto. “With effort, we can overcome this to some extent, but we are continually tasked with needing to correct ourselves.”
“Furthermore, the less time we have to make our judgments, the more likely we are to go with our gut, even over fact,” he added.
“As soon as one sees another person, an impression is formed,” Rule said. “This happens so quickly — just a small fraction of a second — that what we see can sometimes dominate what we know.”
A series of recent studies, presented at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP) annual conference in Austin, Texas, shows that appearance affects everything from whether we end up liking someone to our assessment of their sexual orientation or trustworthiness.
Researchers also note that a first impression formed online — say from a Facebook photo — is often more negative than a first impression formed face to face.
In a study on first impressions of sexual orientation, Rule and his colleagues showed 100 people photos of 20 men, identifying them either as gay or straight. The researchers then tested the participants’ recall of the men’s sexual orientations several times to ensure perfect memorization.
After this learning phase, the researchers then showed the participants the faces again, varying the amount of time they had to categorize the men’s sexual orientations.
The researchers found that the less time the participants had to categorize the faces, the more likely they were to categorize the men according to whether they looked gay or straight, rather than what they had been told about their sexuality. With more time, however, the participants reverted to what they had learned about the men’s sexuality.
“They seemed to judge by appearance when they were forced to make their judgments quickly,” Rule said. “When they were allowed more time, though, they judged according to what they knew about the individuals.”
The researchers noted that they labeled half the faces with their actual sexual orientation and half with their opposite orientation. They did this to “teach the participants to learn information that was opposite to their perceptions,” Rule said.
“It was important for us to establish a conflict between perception — how the face looked — and memory — what they knew about the man’s sexual orientation,” he said.
Rule points to the singer Ricky Martin, who for years denied he was gay before finally coming out.
“In the 1990s, people might see Martin and think ‘oh, that’s a gay guy,’ but then you’d recognize that it was Ricky Martin and think ‘oh, wait, that’s Ricky Martin — he told Barbara Walters that he was straight.’ So there’s a corrective process there: First impressions continue to assert themselves long after you know relevant information about a person,” he said.
Rule presented another study at the conference, which looked at how people categorized faces as trustworthy or not. In this study, facial appearance was a stronger predictor of whether people viewed someone as trustworthy than descriptive information provided, again, even if it conflicted.
“Together, these studies help to illustrate the often inescapable nature of how we form impressions of other people based on their appearance,” Rule said.
“Not only should people not assume that others will be able to overcome aspects of their appearance when evaluating them, but also those of us on the other end should be actively working to consider that our impressions of others are biased.”
Other research presented at the conference looked at the differences in how we form impressions in person versus online, through a video or by just watching people.
“If you want to make a good impression, it is critical that it is done in person,” said Jeremy Biesanz, Ph.D., of the University of British Columbia, who conducted three studies comparing the accuracy and bias of first impressions when formed under different circumstances.
The first study analyzed a series of experiments involving more than 1,000 participants who met each other through either a three-minute speed-dating style interview, or by watching a video of the person.
“What we observe here is that the accuracy of impressions is the same when you meet someone face to face or simply watch a video of them,” Biesanz said. “However, impressions are much more negative when you form impressions more passively through watching videotapes.”
While people could accurately attribute certain personality traits, such as extroverted, arrogant, or sociable, to others in person or by video, the magnitude of the positive attributes was lower via video, while the negatives attributes were higher.
The researchers found similar results in two other studies, including one that compared in-person impressions to those obtained through looking at Facebook photos. The other study compared in-person meetings to simply watching someone as a passive observer. In all cases, the passive means of making impressions were as accurate as the active ones, according to the researchers.
“However, there is an extremely large difference in the positivity of impressions,” he said. “More passive impressions are substantially more negative.”
How we create first impressions is also important when looking for a romantic partner. And new research in this field suggests that whether you meet someone online or in person dramatically changes the judging process.
“People are more likely to use abstract information to make their evaluations in hypothetical than in live impression formation contexts,” said Paul Eastwick, Ph.D., of the University of Texas, Austin, who presented results of his studies on gender differences in different romantic contexts at the conference.
What he found was that when men and women evaluate potential partners in person versus online, typical “ideal” gender preferences disappear.
For example, men generally say they care about attractiveness in a partner more than women, while women say they care about earning prospects in a partner more than men.
“But our meta-analysis reveals that men and women do not show these sex differences when they evaluate others in a face-to-face context,” Eastwick said. “That is, attractiveness inspires men’s and women’s romantic evaluations to the same extent, and earning prospects inspires men’s and women’s romantic evaluations to the same extent.”
The research suggests that in face-to-face settings, people rely more on their gut-level evaluations of another person, according to the researcher.
“They focus on how that person makes them feel,” Eastwick said. “It is very hard to get a sense of this information when simply viewing a profile. This disconnect can cause confusion and distress in the online dating realm, as potential partners that seem terrific ‘on paper’ prove to be disappointing after a face-to-face interaction.”
In another study, psychological researchers Drs. Vivian Zayas of Cornell University and Gül Günaydin of Middle East Technical University found that viewing a photograph can be a good predictor of how you will judge someone in person.
“Despite the well-known idiom to ‘not judge a book by its cover,’ the present research shows that such judgments about the cover are good proxies for judgments about the book — even after reading it,” said Zayas.
Her new research shows that initial impressions based on viewing a single photograph accurately predict how a person will feel about the other person in a live interaction that takes place more than a month later.
“Moreover, participants’ initial judgments based on the photograph colored personality judgments following the interaction,” Zayas said. “The results showed that initial liking judgments based on a photograph remained unchanged even after obtaining more information about a person via an actual live interaction.”