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Faces Can Look More Trustworthy, But Not More Competent

New research has found that we can change our facial features to look more trustworthy, but we don’t have the same ability to look more competent.

The study from a team of New York University psychology researchers highlights both the limits and the potential we have in visually representing ourselves online, from dating and career-networking sites to social media posts.

“Our findings show that facial cues conveying trustworthiness are malleable, while facial cues conveying competence and ability are significantly less so,” said Dr. Jonathan Freeman, an assistant professor in New York University’s Department of Psychology and the study’s senior author.

“The results suggest you can influence to an extent how trustworthy others perceive you to be in a photo, but perceptions of your competence or ability are considerably less able to be changed.”

This distinction is due to the fact that judgments of trustworthiness are based on the face’s dynamic musculature that can be slightly altered, he explained, noting that a neutral face resembling a happy expression is likely to be seen as trustworthy while a neutral face resembling an angry expression is likely to be seen as untrustworthy. This occurs even when the faces aren’t overtly smiling or angered.

But perceptions of ability are drawn from a face’s skeletal structure, which cannot be changed, he said.

For the study, researchers used four experiments in which volunteers examined photos and computer-generated images of adult males.

In the first, the subjects looked at five distinct photos of 10 adult males of different ethnicities. In this experiment, the volunteers’ perceptions of trustworthiness of the men in the pictures varied significantly, with happier-looking faces seen as more trustworthy and angrier-looking faces seen as more untrustworthy.

However, the perceptions of ability, or competence, remained static — judgments were the same no matter which photo of the individual was being judged, according to the researcher.

A second experiment replicated the first, but the participants evaluated 40 computer-generated faces that slowly evolved from “slightly happy” to “slightly angry.” This resulted in 20 different neutral instances of each individual face that slightly resembled a happy or angry expression, the researcher explained.

As with the first experiment, the subjects’ perceptions of trustworthiness paralleled the emotion of the faces: The slightly happier the face appeared, the more likely he was seen to be trustworthy and the opposite for faces appearing slightly angrier. However, once again, perceptions of ability remained unchanged, the researchers reported.

In the third experiment, the researchers implemented a real-world scenario. Here, subjects were shown an array of computer-generated faces and were asked one of two questions: Which face they would choose to be their financial advisor, designed to measure trustworthiness, and which they thought would be most likely to win a weightlifting competition, designed to measure ability.

In this experiment, the participants were significantly more likely to choose as their financial advisor the faces resembling more positive, or happy, expressions, the study found.

But emotions made no difference in the selection of successful weightlifters. Participants were more likely to choose faces with a particular form — those with a comparatively wider facial structure, which prior studies have associated with physical ability and testosterone, the researchers noted.

In the fourth experiment, the researchers used a “reverse correlation” technique to uncover how subjects visually represent a trustworthy or competent face and how they visually represent the face of a trusted financial advisor or competent weightlifting champion. This technique allowed the researchers to determine which of all possible facial cues drive these distinct perceptions without specifying any cues in advance.

They found that resemblance to happy and angry expressions conveyed trustworthiness and was more prevalent in the faces of an imagined financial advisor, while wider facial structure conveyed ability and was more prevalent in the faces of an imagined weightlifting champion.

The researchers noted that these results confirmed the findings of the previous three experiments, cementing their conclusion that perceptions of trustworthiness are malleable, while those for competence or ability are immutable.

The study was published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Source: New York University

Photo Credit: Image courtesy of Jonathan Freeman and Eric Hehman.

Faces Can Look More Trustworthy, But Not More Competent

Janice Wood

Janice Wood is a long-time writer and editor who began working at a daily newspaper before graduating from college. She has worked at a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites, covering everything from aviation to finance to healthcare.

APA Reference
Wood, J. (2018). Faces Can Look More Trustworthy, But Not More Competent. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 31, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 21 Jun 2015)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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