In 2001, President George W. Bush met with Russian President Vladimir Putin and made a famous statement he would later come to regret.
“I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy,” Bush said. “I was able to get a sense of his soul.”
The former KGB officer and Russian dictator for the past two decades launched a devastating invasion of neighboring Ukraine in 2022, resulting in tens of thousands of civilian casualties, including children. This is the third war Putin has been involved in since he claimed ultimate power, after incursions in Chechnya and Georgia. At the moment, Putin is probably one of the most universally hated people in the world, but somehow he managed to not only fool the President of the United States but countless other heads of state and seasoned diplomats who should have known better.
Perhaps these powerful politicians made the same mistake many of us have done and continue to do time and time again: thinking you can judge a book by its cover.
Ask most people whether they can tell if a person is trustworthy just by looking at their face and they’ll likely answer with a confident ‘yes’. Alas, that’s just hubris and wishful thinking according to the findings of a new study that found people are actually quite terrible at judging trustworthiness when a person’s facial cues are the only information available.
Rice University political scientist Rick Wilson and Texas A&M economist Catherine Eckel asked subjects to look at photos of other people who participated in previous studies that involved them making decisions in experimental trust games. Some of these decisions were cooperative and abided by some arbitrary rules set forth by the experiments, while other decisions involved cheating.
The subjects had to guess the level of trustworthiness of the people portrayed in the photographs and earned a monetary reward if they guessed right. But even with the financial incentive, the subjects couldn’t guess with any greater accuracy than random chance which person behaved in a trustworthy manner in the experimental setting.
“The results show that subjects had little ability to accurately guess the trust and trustworthiness behavior of others. There is significant heterogeneity in the accuracy of guesses, and errors in guesses are systematically related to the observable characteristics of the photos,” the authors wrote in their study.
These incorrect hunches were not random. A pattern emerged in which the participants were influenced by various stereotypes based on facial features they saw in photos, including gender, skin color, and attractiveness.
“Our results revealed that people are fooling themselves when they think they can predict trustworthiness from appearance alone,” Wilson said in a statement.
But despite these revelations, it is still tough not to fall for this trap. A 2014 study from New York University’s Department of Psychology found our brains immediately judge the trustworthiness of a stranger’s face even when we cannot consciously see it, confirming previous research showing that we form spontaneous judgments of other people that can be largely outside awareness.