Face Value: The Irresistible Influence of First Impressions

Face Value: The Irresistible Influence of First Impressions

by Alexander Todorov


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The scientific story of first impressions—and why the snap character judgments we make from faces are irresistible but usually incorrect

We make up our minds about others after seeing their faces for a fraction of a second—and these snap judgments predict all kinds of important decisions. For example, politicians who simply look more competent are more likely to win elections. Yet the character judgments we make from faces are as inaccurate as they are irresistible; in most situations, we would guess more accurately if we ignored faces. So why do we put so much stock in these widely shared impressions? What is their purpose if they are completely unreliable? In this book, Alexander Todorov, one of the world's leading researchers on the subject, answers these questions as he tells the story of the modern science of first impressions.

Drawing on psychology, cognitive science, neuroscience, computer science, and other fields, this accessible and richly illustrated book describes cutting-edge research and puts it in the context of the history of efforts to read personality from faces. Todorov describes how we have evolved the ability to read basic social signals and momentary emotional states from faces, using a network of brain regions dedicated to the processing of faces. Yet contrary to the nineteenth-century pseudoscience of physiognomy and even some of today's psychologists, faces don't provide us a map to the personalities of others. Rather, the impressions we draw from faces reveal a map of our own biases and stereotypes.

A fascinating scientific account of first impressions, Face Value explains why we pay so much attention to faces, why they lead us astray, and what our judgments actually tell us.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691167497
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 06/06/2017
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 474,248
Product dimensions: 7.40(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Alexander Todorov is professor of psychology at Princeton University, where he is also affiliated with the Princeton Neuroscience Institute and the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. His research on first impressions has been covered by media around the world, including the New York Times, the Guardian, the New Yorker, the Daily Telegraph, Scientific American, PBS, and NPR. He lives in Princeton.

Read an Excerpt

Face Value

The Irresistible Influence of First Impressions

By Alexander Todorov


Copyright © 2017 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-16749-7



Agnieszka Holland's movie Europa Europa is based on the autobiography of Solomon Perel. As a German Jewish boy, Perel is forced to escape Nazi Germany. After a chain of events that includes stints in Poland and Russia, he is captured by German soldiers. To save his life, he pretends to be Josef Peters, a German from Baltic Germany. Eventually he wins the admiration of the soldiers and their commanding officer and is sent to a prestigious Hitler Youth School in Berlin. One of his scariest moments at the school occurs during a science lesson on racial purity. Next to the giant swastika flag hang three large posters showing faces overlaid with measurements. The teacher walks in and asks, "how do you recognize a Jew?" and then continues, "that's quite simple. The composition of Jewish blood is totally different from ours. The Jew has a high forehead, a hooked nose, a flat back of the head, ears that stick out and he has an ape-like walk. His eyes are shifty and cunning." In contrast to the Jewish man, "the Nordic man is the gem of this earth. He's the most glowing example of the joy of creation. He is not only the most talented but the most beautiful. His hair is as light as ripened wheat. His eyes are blue like the summer sky. His movements are harmonious. His body is perfect." The teacher continues, "science is objective. Science is incorruptible. As I have already told you, if you thoroughly understand racial differences, no Jew will ever be able to deceive you." This is where the frightening moment for Perel/Peters really begins. The teacher turns toward Peters and asks him to come forward. Horrified, Peters reluctantly goes to the front of the room. The teacher pulls out a measuring tape and starts measuring his head — first from the chin to the top of the head, then from the nose to the top of the head, and then from the chin to the nose. While the measurement continues, there is a close up on Peters's face as he anxiously tracks the actions of the teacher. The teacher continues with his measurement. He measures the width of Peters's head and then compares his eyes with different eye colors from a table. "The eyes. Look at his skull. His forehead. His profile [turning Peters's head, who is visibly blushing]. Although his ancestors' blood, over many generations mingled with that of other races, one still recognizes his distinct Aryan traits." On hearing this, Peters almost jerks his head toward the teacher's face. "It's from this mixture that the East-Baltic race evolved. Unfortunately, you're not part of our most noble race, but you are an authentic Aryan."

The "objective science" of physiognomy was not invented by Nazi scientists. It has a long history originating in ancient cultures. The physiognomists' claims reached scientific credibility in the nineteenth century, although this credibility came under attack by the new science of psychology in the early twentieth century. Their claims were wrong, but the physiognomists were right about a few things: we immediately form impressions from appearance, we agree on these impressions, and we act on them. These psychological facts make the physiognomists' claims believable, and the claims have not disappeared. A surge of recent scientific studies test hypotheses that the physiognomists would have approved of. An Israeli technology start-up is offering its services in facial profiling to private businesses and governments. Rather than using a tape to measure faces, they use modern computer science methods. Their promise is the old physiognomists' promise: "profiling people and revealing their personality based only on their facial image." We are tempted by the physiognomists' promise, because it is easy to confuse our immediate impressions from the face with seeing the character of the face owner. Grasping the appeal of this promise and the significance of first impressions in everyday life begins with the history of physiognomy and its inherent connections to "scientific" racism.

* * *

The first preserved document dedicated to physiognomy is Physiognomica, a treatise attributed to Aristotle. The major premises of the treatise are that the character of animals is revealed in their form and that humans resembling certain animals possess the character of these animals. Here is one of many examples of applying this logic: "soft hair indicates cowardice, and coarse hair courage. This inference is based on observation of the whole animal kingdom. The most timid of animals are deer, hares, and sheep, and they have the softest coats; whilst the lion and wild-boar are bravest and have the coarsest coats." The logic is also extended to races: "and again, among the different races of mankind the same combination of qualities may be observed, the inhabitants of the north being brave and coarse-haired, whilst southern peoples are cowardly and have soft hair."

In the sixteenth century, Giovanni Battista della Porta, an Italian scholar and playwright, greatly expanded on these ideas. Humans whose faces (and various body parts) "resembled" a particular animal were endowed with the presumed qualities of the animal. His book is filled with illustrations like the one in Figure 1.1.

This particular illustration appears four times in the book in analyses of different facial parts, yet the message is consistent. People who look like cows — whether because of their big foreheads or wide noses — are stupid, lazy, and cowardly. There is one positive characteristic: the hollow eyes indicate pleasantness. As you can imagine, those who "look like" lions come off much better.

Della Porta's book was very popular in Europe and enjoyed multiple translations from Latin into Italian, German, French, and Spanish, resulting in twenty editions. The book influenced Charles Le Brun, one of the dominant figures in seventeenth-century French art. Le Brun, appointed by Louis XIV as the first Painter of the King, was also the Director of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture. In 1688, Le Brun delivered a lecture on the facial expressions of emotions: the first attempt in human history to systematically explore and depict such expressions. After Le Brun's death, the lecture — discussed, admired, and hated by artists — was published in more than sixty editions. Le Brun also delivered a second lecture on physiognomy. Unfortunately, this lecture was not preserved, but some of the illustrations survived. Compare della Porta's Lion-Man in Figure 1.2 with Le Brun's Lion-Man in Figure 1.3.

Le Brun's drawings are more beautiful and true to life, and it is apparent that he was trying to develop a much more sophisticated system of comparisons between animal and human heads. Le Brun experimented with the angles of the eyes to achieve different perceptual effects. He noted that the eyes of human faces are on a horizontal line and that sloping them downward makes the faces look more bestial. This is illustrated in his drawing of the Roman emperor, Antoninus Pius, in Figure 1.4.

Alternatively, making the eyes of animals horizontal makes them look more human, as in Figure 1.5. These kinds of experiments are not that different from modern psychology experiments testing how changes in facial features influence our impressions.

The theme of comparative physiognomy would continue to run through physiognomists' writings and appear in the work of many caricaturists throughout Europe and America for the next 300 years. Some of the most talented caricaturists, like Thomas Rowlandson in England and Honoré Daumier and J. J. Grandville in France, would exploit this theme to achieve humorous effects. But other authors took the theme seriously. Many national stereotypes and prejudices of the day find their expression in a book titled Comparative Physiognomy or Resemblances between Men and Animals, published in the United States in 1852: Germans are like lions, Irish are like dogs, Turks are like turkeys, and the list goes on.

* * *

Johann Kaspar Lavater, the real superstar of physiognomy, highly recommended della Porta's book, although he was critical: "the fanciful Porta appears to me to have been often misled, and to have found resemblances [between men and beasts] which the eye of truth never could discover." Prior to Lavater, physiognomy was closely associated with suspect practices like chiromancy (palm reading), metoposcopy (reading the lines of the forehead), and astrology. There were even laws in Britain stating that those "pretending to have skill in physiognomy" were "rogues and vagabonds," "liable to be publicly whipped." Lavater engaged in debates with some of the greatest minds of the eighteenth century and legitimized physiognomy. Reviewing the history of physiognomy at the end of the nineteenth century, Paolo Mantegazza, an Italian neurologist and anthropologist, summarized it this way: "plenty of authors, plenty of volumes, but little originality, and plenty of plagiarism! Who knows how often we might have been dragged through the same ruts if towards the middle of the last century Lavater had not appeared to inaugurate a new era for this order of studies." For Mantegazza, Lavater was "the apostle of scientific physiognomy."

Born and raised in Zurich, Switzerland, Lavater showed early inclinations toward religion. After receiving a theological education, he rose through the ranks of the Zurich Reformed Church to become the pastor of the Saint Peter's church. By many accounts of the day, he was extremely charming. His sermons were popular, and he entertained hundreds of visitors. Lavater was also a prolific author. He managed to write more than 100 books and maintain an extremely large correspondence. Ironically, he was reluctant to write about physiognomy, although he was continually urged to do so by Johann Georg Ritter von Zimmermann, another Swiss who was the personal physician of the King of England and a European celebrity. Zimmermann would remain Lavater's greatest promoter and supporter.

Lavater's first publication on physiognomy was unintentional. As a member of the Society for Natural Sciences in Zurich, Lavater was asked to deliver a lecture of his own choosing. He gave a lecture on physiognomy, which ended up being published by Zimmermann, who "had it printed wholly without my knowledge. And thus I suddenly saw myself thrust into public as a defender of physiognomics." Being thrust into this role and aware of the strong feelings that physiognomy provoked, Lavater approached many celebrities of the day to help him with the writing of his Essays on Physiognomy. By then, he was a famous theologian, and support was coming from all directions — from encouragement to requests for portraits to be analyzed. None other than Goethe helped Lavater edit the first volume, and some of the best illustrators worked on the books. The four-volume work was published between 1775 and 1778, and the result was "a typographical splendor with which no German book had ever before been printed." And in fact, the large format, richly illustrated books are beautiful even by today's standards.

The success of the books was phenomenal despite the exorbitant price. It helped that the books were distributed by subscription to many aristocrats and leading intellectuals, some of whom were lured by Lavater's promise to analyze their profiles. More importantly, societies formed to buy and discuss the books. Within a few decades, there were twenty English, sixteen German, fifteen French, two American, one Russian, one Dutch, and one Italian editions. As the author of the Lavater obituary in The Gentleman's Magazine in 1801 put it, "in Switzerland, in Germany, in France, even in Great Britain, all the world became passionate admirers of the Physiognomical Science of Lavater. His books, published in the German language, were multiplied by many editions. In the enthusiasm with which they were studied and admired, they were thought as necessary in every family as even the Bible itself. A servant would, at one time, scarcely be hired but the description and engravings of Lavater had been consulted in careful comparisons with the lines and features of the young man's or woman's countenance."

* * *

Lavater defined physiognomy as "the talent of discovering, the interior man by the exterior appearance." Although his ambition was to introduce physiognomy as a science, there was not much scientific evidence in his writings. Instead he offered "universal axioms and incontestible principles." Here are some of the axioms: "the forehead to the eyebrows, the mirror of intelligence; the cheeks and the nose form the seat of the moral life; and the mouth and chin aptly represent the animal life." The "evidence" came from counterfactual statements peppered with what now would be considered blatantly racist beliefs: "who could have the temerity to maintain, that Newton or Leibnitz might resemble one born an idiot" or have "a misshapen brain like that of Laplander" or "a head resembling that of an Esquimaux."

The other kind of "evidence" came from the many illustrations, which served as Rorschach's inkblots on which Lavater (and his readers) could project their knowledge and biases. The knowledge projection came from describing famous personalities. Analyzing the profile of Julius Caesar, Lavater noted that "it is certain that every man of the smallest judgment, unless he contradict his internal feeling, will acknowledge, that, in the form of that face, in the contour of the parts, and the relation which they have to one another, they discover the superior man." Analyzing the profile of Moses Mendelssohn, a brilliant philosopher known as the "German Socrates" and Berlin's most famous Jew, "I revel in this silhouette! My glance welters in this magnificent curve of the forehead down to the pointed bone of the eye. ... In this depth of the eye a Socratic soul is lodged!" And there are the illustrations of particular human types like the "horrible face" in Figure 1.6, described by Lavater in the following way:

"It is not virtue which that horrible face announces. Never could candour, or a noble simplicity, or cordiality, have fixed their residence there. The most sordid avarice, the most obdurate wickedness, the most abominable knavery, have deranged those eyes, have disfigured that mouth." Lavater also illustrated and described "national types." Naturally, Europeans, especially the Germans and English, fared much better than the rest of humanity. Many of the non-Europeans could hardly pass for humans in his book.

Lavater was just as popular as his books. One of his aristocratic friends wrote in a letter that she would keep his visit to Bern a secret "so as not to have the entire local population round our necks asking for physiognomical reading." The Emperor Joseph II did not miss a chance to meet Lavater while visiting Switzerland. After the meeting, the emperor wrote to him: "the fact that you can see into people's hearts puts one on one's guard when one comes too close to you." Joseph actually suggested that physiognomy should become an academic discipline to be taught at universities. Wisely, Lavater politely declined: "well, let's put off of a system of physiognomy for another forty or fifty years. Meanwhile, [we can] make daily observations, confirm and define the old ones more precisely, add new ones, and not draw up our armies until we have recruited enough hardy individual soldiers."

* * *

In the end, the phenomenal success of Lavater's "science" was short lived. The person most responsible for its demise was Georg Christoph Lichtenberg. Lichtenberg, the son of a Protestant clergyman, studied mathematics and physics at the University of Göttingen, one of the most liberal universities in Germany. Shortly after his graduation, he was appointed as a professor there. His lectures on experimental physics were famous and attended by luminaries like Alessandro Volta, Goethe, Karl Friedrich Gauss, and Alexander von Humboldt. Elected to the most prestigious science societies in the world, he was highly respected. But he is remembered more for his contributions to literature and philosophy than to the natural sciences. Goethe referred to his writings as "the most wonderful divining rod," and Lichtenberg is credited with the introduction of the aphorism in German literature.

Lichtenberg was remarkably modern in his ideas, not buying into the prevailing racist prejudices of his day. To Lavater's claim that it is impossible to imagine "that Newton or Leibnitz might resemble" somebody from an "inferior" ethnic origin, he responded, "this shallow and passionate youthful declamation can be arrested forever with a simple and why not?" With respect to the worst prejudices about the people of Africa, he wrote, "I just want to put in a word for the Negro, whose profile one has drawn to be the downright ideal of stupidity and stubbornness and, so to speak, the asymptote of the line marking the stupidity and stubbornness of Europeans."


Excerpted from Face Value by Alexander Todorov. Copyright © 2017 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Prologue 1

1 The Appeal Of Physiognomy

1 The Physiognomists’ Promise 9

2 Single-Glance Impressions 28

3 Consequential Impressions 48

2 Understanding First Impressions

4 The Psychologist’s Trade 73

5 Making The Invisible Visible 93

6 The Functions Of Impressions 112

7 The Eye Of The Beholder 131

3 The (Mis)accuracy Of First Impressions

8 Misleading Images 147

9 Suboptimal Decisions 168

10 Evolutionary Stories 185

11 Life Leaves Traces On Our Faces 203

4 The Special Status Of Faces

12 Born To Attend To Faces 219

13 Face Modules In The Brain 233

14 Illusory Face Signals 246

Epilogue: More Evolutionary Stories 264

Acknowledgments 269

Notes And References 271

Image Credits 311

Index 319

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"Face Value is an excellent book, with many surprising insights and many compelling illustrations that offer a complex aesthetic experience."—Daniel Kahneman, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics and author of Thinking, Fast and Slow

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