It’s Impossible to Not Be Superficial

There’s a lot that goes on inside a person’s head when they encounter an unfamiliar face. Perhaps the most well-known of these mental processes is the evaluation of the face’s attractiveness, which can lead to an affective response and influence future decisions regarding the face. Yet while the hot-or-not game is being played there’s another powerful evaluation occurring. This second evaluation compares the new face to known faces, and according to a new study, these evaluations are automatic, potentially powerful, and bad news for Sarah Palin look-alikes.

Psychologists Bertram Gawronski and Kimberly Quinn began their study by showing participants the face of a person about whom they were told negative things and the face of a person about whom they were told positive things.  The researchers then used a computer program to create “face morphs” — new faces that were 50% of an unfamiliar face and 50% of one of the two faces participants had been shown. In the final phase of the experiment faces were flashed across the screen followed by positive or negative words. The speed at which participants identified whether the words were positive or negative was used to determine whether the faces had been evaluated positively or negatively.

Bertram and Quinn found that the novel morphs containing parts of the initial positive and negative faces were automatically evaluated positively or negatively. In addition, although one might expect the magnitude of the morph-evaluations to be only half the magnitude of the evaluations of the initial two faces they resembled, the evaluations of the morphs proved to be the same as the evaluations of the full faces. In other words, as long as an unfamiliar face is reminiscent of a familiar face, a person may have the same reaction to the two faces regardless of the degree to which they are similar.

Our findings indicate that automatic evaluations of unknown faces are influenced by their perceptual resemblance to known faces. In the current research, affective generalization occurred rapidly without perceivers’ intention to evaluate the relevant target face. Moreover, facial-resemblance effects were characterized by an assimilation of unknown faces to existing representations of known faces, in that unknown faces elicited the same automatic evaluations as the known faces they resembled. These effects occurred for affective generalizations from both positive and negative targets. Thus, although unknown individuals can sometimes benefit from their resemblance to known individuals when the latter have a positive valence, they can also be susceptible to “guilty-by-mere-association” effects when they resemble a negatively evaluated person.

One interesting follow up question is whether the same thing occurs with a person’s voice or their gait. My inclination is to think that it probably does. Either way, you can certainly file the study away in the already overflowing “it’s impossible view somebody objectively” drawer.

It’s also worth considering whether the significance of these evaluations has changed in the last 30-40 years. Given the prevalance of Facebook, TV, Google image search, and the limitless space in which photos can be added to online content, it seems that nowadays people ought to have a larger database of familiar faces. That means it’s considerably harder for a new face to receive an objective evaluation that’s not influenced by the faces it resembles.
Gawronski, B., & Quinn, K.A. (2012). Guilty by Mere Similarity: Assimilative Effects of Facial Resemblance on Automatic Evaluation Journal of Experimental Social Psychology DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2012.07.016

One Response to It’s Impossible to Not Be Superficial

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