People tend to view masculine faces as more competent, according to a new study published in the journal Psychological Science. This correlation is also true for female faces, but only to a certain point, after which more masculine female faces are perceived as less competent.
“Our research sheds light on the pernicious gender bias in how we perceive others — we judge masculine looking people as competent, a judgment that can affect our leadership choices,” said psychology researcher DongWon Oh of Princeton University, a doctoral student and first author of the research.
Oh and coauthors Elinor A. Buck and Dr. Alexander Todorov wanted to identify the “visual ingredients” that influence how we perceive competence based solely on an individual’s appearance.
To do this, they relied on a computational model of competence they had established through previous research. Using participant ratings of several different faces, the team established the parameters that were most reliably associated with impressions of competence. Then they built a model that allowed them to digitally alter face stimuli according to these specific parameters, producing faces that varied in perceived competence.
In one online experiment, the researchers used this model to present a variety of faces to 33 participants. Some participants rated how competent the faces were, while others rated their attractiveness.
The findings reveal that the faces designed to look more competent were rated as such, and they were also rated as more attractive, consistent with the “attractiveness halo” found in previous research.
Still, the researchers suspected there were probably other components of appearance that reflect competence.
“Using the computational methods we developed for visualizing appearance stereotypes, we can literally remove the attractiveness of the competent-looking faces,” says Oh. “We can then test whether ‘competent’ faces still appear competent and inspect what visual properties other than attractiveness drive the competence impressions.”
The results of this new model showed that participants perceived more competent faces as more confident and more masculine, impressions that are not explained by attractiveness.
In another online experiment, the researchers discovered a clear gender bias: When participants were asked to identify faces as either male or female, they tended to rate more competent faces as male and less competent faces as female.
Together, these findings suggest that competence and masculinity are correlated components of first impressions based on appearance.
To determine whether this link works similarly for male faces and female faces, the researchers manipulated photorealistic images of male and female faces so that they varied in masculinity. They randomly assigned 250 online participants to rate the competence of either male faces or female faces.
Again, they found a gender bias in first impressions: As male faces increased in masculinity, so did their perceived competence. For female faces, this correlation only held up to a point, after which more masculine female faces were actually perceived as less competent.
The findings have significant implications as impressions of competence can influence who we choose as our leaders: Research has shown that individuals with more competent-looking faces are more likely to be elected as high-ranking politicians such as U.S. senators and as the heads of large companies.
“Problematically, how competent someone appears does not guarantee their actual competence,” Oh said. “Needless to say, these gender biases pose a threat to social justice, creating unfair environments for everyone.”
The researchers hope to expand on these findings, investigating the origins of this gender bias and how it might be mitigated. In addition, they are looking into whether there are systematic differences in the impressions we have of male and female faces.