First impressions are extremely important for interpersonal relationships. It’s believed that most people form a mental image of a person based on their first interaction that lingers for a long while and which may or may nor reflect the said person’s true character. Sales people know just how much first impressions count and use this to their advantage. One important driver of first impressions are facial features – basically people will judge you and form a mental image of you based what facial features you exhibit. But which of these features communicate various impressions? Researchers at University of York built a mathematical model based on photo analysis and surveys and found some of the telltale¬†signs¬†that drive the most common first impressions.

“If people are forming these first impressions, just based on looking at somebody’s face, what is it about the image of the face that’s giving that impression – can we measure it exactly?” said Dr Tom Hartley, a neuroscientist at the University of York.

The researchers presented some 1,000 still photos of people from the internet and showed each to at least six different people who were asked to gave it a score for 16 different social traits, like trustworthiness or intelligence. The team measured the facial features for each photo and correlated the scores to build a mathematical model of how facial dimensions produce three of the most main characteristics: attractiveness, dominance and approachable. Then, using this model, the researchers ordered produced cartoon versions of the most (and least) approachable, dominant and attractive faces, along with in-between possibilities.

Six faces and their computerised approximations, including study author Dr Tom Hartley (second from left)

Six faces and their computerised approximations, including study author Dr Tom Hartley (second from left)

Some takeaways: approachable is tied to smiling expressions and unapproachable to frowning or angry expressions, while dominance is tied to masculine features. Even so, the researchers are careful to note that its difficult to pinpoint one dominant facial feature.

“Lots of the features of the face tend to vary together,” he explained. “So it’s very difficult for us to pin down with certainty that a given feature of the face is contributing to a certain social impression,” Dr Hartley said.

Don’t kid yourself, though. No matter how much you’d like to deny it, brief facial expressions can make a big difference to how we are received by strangers. The findings could, thus, help people put on their best, for those who wish it. On social media, like facebook or linkedin, often enough the only physical connection people have is a profile picture. Animators looking for the more realistic and vivid representations for their characters might also find use in these findings, as well as photographers.

“You would be able to use these kind of numbers to decide when is a good time to take a photograph, or maybe to choose the photograph that’s really optimal in putting forward the best possible impression – and you might want to put forward different kinds of social impressions in different situations,” Dar. Hartley said.

The findings appeared in the journal PNAS. [via BBC]

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