ACCURACY IN PERSON PERCEPTION WITH MINIMAL INFORMATION AND ITS IMPORTANCE FOR SUCCESSFUL INTERPERSONAL INTERACTION
Despite its ubiquity in everyday life, the use of facial features as a diagnostic tool has become scientifically unpopular. Methodological critiques marked the beginning of a rethinking (Cronbach, 1955; Gage & Cronbach, 1955). Later, a focus on shortcomings and biases in human judgment (Gilovich, 1991; Kahneman & Tversky, 1973; Nisbett & Ross, 1980) and the respective influences on person perception (e.g., Asch, 1946; Jones & Harris, 1967) led to the common impression that accuracy in human judgment is generally poor (Funder, 1987; Lopes, 1991). As fruitful as it was, the focus on errors and biases did not give us the whole picture of person perception, however. After all, the avoidance of error is not quite the same thing as the achievement of accuracy, and explanations of how errors arise shed relatively little light on how correct judgments are ever made (Funder, 1995). Or as James (1915) noted, the shunning of error needs to be complemented by a more positively oriented search for truth.
One might actually wonder whether the same processes that produce bias under some conditions did not evolve in the first place because they by and large are quite useful tools for accurate judgment. Some studies found that accuracy is actually reduced when reducing biases. Eliminating the “halo effect,” for example, led to lower accuracy in real-world settings (Bernardin & Pence, 1980; Block & Funder, 1986; Borman, 1975). Often, lab stimuli are deliberately constructed in such a way that people’s natural tendencies would lead to errors. For example, people in positive mood tend to rely on their stereotypes, whereas people in bad mood are more likely to use a bottom-up approach (e.g., Bless, Schwarz, & Wieland, 1996). A perspective that accuracy requires systematic data-processing would therefore predict higher accuracy under a bad mood.
In contrast, Ambady and Gray (2002) demonstrated that when using real targets with objective criteria, accuracy actually was reduced when participants were in a bad mood. Moreover, the authors demonstrated that the reduction in accuracy was exactly due to a more deliberative information-processing style, which was obviously not helpful when making judgments about real people based on short videos. This research also suggests that people may be able to infer person attributes even from scarce information (see also Johnson, this volume). Indeed, after a long period of silence, accuracy research experienced a renaissance in the 1990s.
Based on short observations of behavioral episodes, often referred to as “thin slices,” perceivers can identify personality traits (Berry, 1991; Borkenau & Liebler, 1992; Carney, Colvin, & Hall, 2007; Funder, 1980), intelligence (Borkenau, Mauer, Riemann, Spinath, & Angleitner, 2004; Murphy, Hall, & Colvin, 2003; Reynolds & Gifford, 2001), sexual orientation (Ambady, Hallahan, & Conner, 1999), performance (Babad, Avni-Babad, & Rosenthal, 2003), and social relations (Bernieri, Gillis, Davis, & Grahe, 1996; Costanzo & Archer, 1989; Kenny, Bond, Mohr, & Horn, 1996; for reviews, see Ambady, Bernieri, & Richeson, 2000; Funder, 1994; Zebrowitz & Collins, 1997).
There is also evidence that perceivers can form rather accurate impressions when only stills, mostly faces, rather than behavioral episodes are presented. Apparently, people are able to diagnose power and warmth (Berry, 1990, 1991), which is a comforting finding given the role of perceived power and warmth for electoral success discussed already (Rule et al., 2010). Other personal characteristics that can be inferred from facial photos include honesty (Bond, Berry, & Omar, 1994; Zebrowitz, Voinescu, & Collins, 1996); extraversion, emotional stability, and openness to experience (Penton-Voak, Pound, Little, & Perrett, 2006); sexual orientation (Ambady et al., 1999; Rule & Ambady, 2008); social class (Lasswell & Parshall, 1961); and male testosterone levels (Penton-Voak & Chen, 2004).
These findings are surprising only in the context of a perhaps morally motivated sentiment that external appearances are completely unrelated to internal dispositions. The adages that “one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover” or that “looks may deceive” reflect this cultural belief. In contrast, based on Gibson’s (1979) theorizing, Zebrowitz and Collins (1997) proposed several ways psychological traits and configurations of physical attributes can systematically relate. First, it is possible that both physical and psychological qualities are influenced by the same factors (the common cause effect). These may be biological, genetic, or environmental factors. Rosenberg and Kagan (1987), for example, found that the genes that produce blue versus brown eyes may also influence behavior because the hormone responsible for eye color (alpha-melanocyte stimulating hormone) also influences arousal level and emotional reactivity.
Alternatively, physical attributes may be caused by psychological factors (the Dorian Gray effect). People who have a tense and irritable temperament may use different facial muscles in a way that leads to different jaw development than that of people who are more easygoing (Kreiborg, Jensen, Moller, & Bjork, 1978; Moller, 1966). According to the theory of emotional afference (Waynbaum, 1906, 1907a, 1907b), emotional processes produce vascular changes, which are partly regulated by facial musculature. Therefore, a repeated experience of certain emotions leads to the habitual use of certain facial muscles, which, over a longer period of time, can permanently shape the looks of our faces, representing a direct effect of psychological on physical attributes (Zebrowitz & Collins, 1997). Likewise, long-married couples increased in facial similarity presumably because of empathic mimicry of emotions over a long time (Zajonc, Adelmann, Murphy, & Niedenthal, 1987).
As a further option, the environment may mediate the influence of psychological attributes on physical ones. People with certain dispositions may seek particular environments that influence their looks in a specific way. Zebrowitz and Collins (1997) gave the example of hostile or aggressive people who may choose activities such as boxing, which in turn influences their looks in a specific way. Finally, physical aspects can influence psychological attributes (the self-fulfilling prophecy effect). On the one hand, people may actively seek environments that suit their looks (attractive people may seek the presence of large crowds) and therefore develop certain personality attributes due to that environment. On the other hand, people may evoke certain reactions from their social environment that depend on their looks and consequently develop different personalities (Zebrowitz & Collins, 1997). To summarize with regard to interpersonal behavior, although looks certainly influence interpersonal behavior the reverse is also true: Interpersonal interactions may also influence personal appearances.
But if we accept the notion that dispositions may leak into faces, we may also expect social perceivers to have become sensitive to detecting at least socially relevant characteristics. From an evolutionary perspective, the accurate assessment of other human beings’ attributes, and the identification of friends and foes, can be conceived as an adaptive prediction skill that is most relevant to the long-term fitness of individuals and the survival of the species. Without a doubt, accurate person perception is highly adaptive for social interaction and for individuals’ personal goal attainment (for reviews see Schaller, 2008; Zebrowitz & Montepare, 2006). The judgments people form of others will influence both spontaneous interpersonal behavior as well as strategic interpersonal behavior. Whom to help, whom to approach for help, and how to appeal for help are just a few examples of how inferences based on looks may be crucial in interpersonal behavior. So it is perhaps less surprising that people became sensitive to the most obvious and immediate cue, the human face.