Global study of first impressions adds diversity

A new large-scale study has shown how people across the globe, regardless of race or culture make similar judgements about people based on just looking at their face.

The Psychological Science Accelerator project to which researchers from the University of Nottingham Malaysia contribute adds diversity to studies in human behaviour and this new research examines how people form an impression of someone just from looking at their face. The study which covered 11 world regions and had more than 11,000 participants and more than 250 authors has been published in Nature Human Behaviour.

Professor Steve Janssen from University of Nottingham Malaysia who contributes to the Psychological Science Accelerator said: “From dating and other romantic situations to law and courtroom situations, people make judgments about other people’s personality based on their facial appearance. A person might look friendly or kind, while other people might look arrogant or aggressive. These impressions are often made quickly and involuntarily.

Previous research in this area has been conducted in Western, Educated, Industrialised and Rich Democracies (WEIRD) and it is not clear if the behaviour of people in those so-called WEIRD countries is representative of all human behaviour. The Psychological Science Accelerator aims to address these problems and see whether people from different parts of the world form impressions in the same way.”

The leading theory of face perception is the valence-dominance model. This model argues that all faces are judged on two dimensions. Valence refers to the perceived intentions of the person. Can the person be trusted or not? Dominance, on the other hand, refers to the perceived ability of the person to hurt other people. Can the person dominate other people or not?

The new research combined the efforts of an international team of scientists with the model examined in 11 different world regions, including Africa, Asia, Central America, and South America, and used a more diverse set of faces (i.e., Asian, Black, Latin, and White faces). More than 11,000 participants from 41 countries were asked to rate 120 faces on 13 scales (e.g., trustworthy, responsible, weird, unhappy, aggressive, mean).

Professor Janssen continues: “We found in most world regions support for the two dimensions. Faces that were rated as trustworthy were also rated as responsible but they were not necessarily rated as more or less aggressive or mean. Similarly, faces that were rated as aggressive were also rated as mean but they were not necessarily rated as more or less trustworthy or responsible. However, in many world regions, a third dimension appeared, which was represented by ratings of weirdness or happiness.

This study shows that when people meet a person, they do not only form an impression of the person by judging whether the person looks like they can be trusted and whether the person looks like they have the ability to harm others, but also whether the person looks they are strange or happy. In addition, this study shows that it is important for psychology research to include stimuli and participants from non-western countries.”

The Psychological Science Accelerator is built on Open Science principles. The project aims to make its research as transparent as possible, for example by sharing its materials and data with other researchers. The studies of the project are also either pre-registered or published as Registered Reports. The hypotheses, the study design, the materials, and the planned statistical analyses are all announced before collecting the data, which prevents questionable research practices, like HARK-ing and p-hacking, that make findings less trustworthy. The project is ongoing and will tackle in their upcoming studies different topics, such as gendered prejudice, morality, efficacy of public service announcements, and emotion regulation.

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