Social Machines: Computers That Know If You're Naughty or Nice

In fractions of a second, people make judgments about whether someone is nice or mean, trustworthy of a crook, competent or inept. Although not everyone's instincts are exactly the same, there is such great overlap that researchers can create computer-generated images of what a nice, competent, or trustworthy person looks like. Using such images, scientists have now designed a software program that can "tell" whether a face appears mean or threatening, just like humans. The program was able to make judgments about celebrities' appearances much in line with popular perceptions of those celebrities.

Snap judgments based on appearance have real-world implications. Politicians who appear competent are more likely to win elections. Dominant-looking soldiers rise quickly through the ranks. Baby-faced men are more likely to be found not guilty in court. Studies have found that even people with prosopagnosia (the inability to recognize familiar faces) can still discern trustworthiness. These instincts are powerful.

But just because they are powerful does not mean they are right. The evidence is mixed: A 1966 study found that people ranked strangers similarly to how those strangers scored on personality tests. But a similar experiment with tighter controls found support only for the traits of extroversion and conscientiousness. If there is a real correlation between appearance and personality, it's possible the explanation could be chemical (higher levels of testosterone have been shown to increase both dominance and the width of men's faces) or social -- the result of a self-fulfilling prophecy (that is, when people treat you as a nice person because you have a nice-person appearance, you learn to act as a nice person).

Why does the instinct to make these judgments exist at all? Alexander Todorov, a professor of psychology at Princeton, explains that our first impressions about a person's trait, say whether they are a threat, may come from a "structural resemblance" to a particular emotional expression, perhaps anger or dangerousness, that we then mistakenly attribute to someone's personality more generally. Of course, the ability to tell when someone is angry or dangerous is an important survival skill, one that, the argument goes, has been overgeneralized to make an assessment of someone's personality in an instant.

Below, a few of videos from Todorov's Princeton lab showing faces with varying levels of trustworthiness, competence, and dangerousness. In each video in the lower right-hand corner is a number indicating standard deviation units: The higher the number, the more extreme presentation of that trait. Each begins neutral, progresses to very high, declines to very low, and then returns to zero.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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