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Remembering the deceitful in one glance

I remember my cousin giving me tips on how to be left alone while riding the subway. “Wear a hooded sweatshirt that is too big for you,” Chris said, “and also wear headphones with music too loud, rap is always good. And put on a mean look, like you’re not someone to mess with; be unfriendly. No one wants to mess with me when I do that, they take one look at me and they stay away. It usually gets me a bench all to myself.” At first, hearing this surprised me. I couldn’t believe that people were that quick to judge others but I found myself thinking of all the times I had ridden on the bus or train. With one glance at someone I was able to make judgments on whether or not to sit near them. Chris’ description of how to keep people away fit my own judgment of who to stay clear of. That was when I first realized how much people rely on first impressions. Most times, our first impressions are based on the appearance of a person; their physical appearance.  Our judgments are usually quick and automatic and don’t necessarily change until we interact with the other person more.

Do these quick and automatic judgments affect our memory of the person? Are we more likely to remember the friendly barista at Starbucks or the distant businessman who didn’t hold the elevator doors? What about the old lady who looks like our grandmother or the teenage boy with an oversized sweatshirt with the hood up blaring his rap music?

RIMG0574  vs. Ann Tennyson Pic 2
Rule, Slepian, and Ambady conducted  multiple experiments to look at the relationship between first impressions and memory based on the trustworthiness, likeability, dominance (how influential a person looks), and facial maturity (aging of face) of the person presented.

In their first study, 70 undergraduate students were shown 20 faces, 40 participants were shown all male faces and 30 were shown all female faces. The faces shown were previously rated as either trustworthy or untrustworthy.1218944207_1389

After a brief delay in which participants completed another task, they were then shown another groups of faces. This group consisted of new faces (male faces in the all male group and female faces in the all female group) as well as faces they were shown before the filler task. Participants were then asked to indicate whether they had previously seen the face being shown. Overall, they found that people were more likely to remember untrustworthy faces than trustworthy faces. But is trustworthiness the only trait that can affect face memory?

Rule et al. did a second study similar to the first in which 72 undergraduates were shown faces that were not previously rated. After completing another unrelated task, they looked at new faces as well as the faces previously shown and were asked to rate the faces on a scale of 1 (not at all) to 7 (very) on trustworthiness, likeability, dominance, and facial maturity. They found that participants remembered faces that they rated poorly in both trustworthiness and likeability but there was no difference in remembering faces with high or low dominance or facial maturity. This study showed that both trustworthiness and likeablility have an effect on memory but dominance and facial maturity do not.

Both of these studies show that we make immediate assumptions of others based on how trustworthy or likeable one looks and based on how they look, we are more likely to remember them. However, does knowing more about the person increase our memory of their face? In their third study, Rule et al. showed 198 undergraduates pictures of either men’s or women’s faces and each face was given a descriptive sentence about that person’s trustworthiness. Half of the participants were given pictures that were previously rated untrustworthy or trustworthy with contradictory descriptions.  Untrustworthy faces had descriptions expressing that the person was honest and trustworthy rated faces with descriptions claiming the face was untrustworthy. The other half of the participants were shown previously rated trustworthy or untrustworthy faces with matching descriptions. Trustworthy faces had descriptions reinforcing the honesty of the face and untrustworthy faces had descriptions emphasizing the dishonesty of the face. Like in the first two studies, Rule et al. found that untrustworthy faces were remembered better. In addition, faces that had matching descriptions improved memory and faces with contrasting descriptions reduced memory.. In all, this study showed that the more trusting we believe a person to be, the less we will remember them compared to those we believe to be untrustworthy.

How we look affects how we are remembered. Some might think that looking friendly and welcoming would make more of an impression on someone but what Rule et al. found was quite the opposite. Looking untrustworthy and unlikeable makes more of an impression on ones memory. Although we may be less likely to engage with those who look like they can’t be trusted or look like someone we may not like, they are the ones who we are more likely to remember. Having someone reaffirm our instinctual judgments of the person also increases our memory of that person. Seeing that devious looking teenage boy with his hood up blaring rap music sitting on the bus and having the person beside you say, “that boy stole my IPod last year” will further engrave the boy in your memory. So is looking the part of an untrustworthy, unlikeable person in order to avoid confrontation or interaction with others worth being imprinted into their memories as such a person? Would looking trustworthy and likeable while committing a crime decrease your chances of being picked out of a lineup? How far can one take looks and first impressions?


Rule, N. O., Slepian, M. L., & Ambady, N. (2012). A memory advantage for untrustworthy faces. Cognition, 125(2), 207-218. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cognition.2012.06.017

Here is a link to the paper.

  1. May 2nd, 2013 at 14:01 | #1

    I am curious if the results at all reflect distinctiveness? If one is looking untrustworthy in a certain situation where there are more people who are “normal”, would he not stick out better on your mind? Furthermore, In response to your last question. I would think that if you looked presentable and trustworthy and then robbed someone, A person may even remember you better because it is not everyday a person in a business suit walks up to you, mugs you, and steals all your money. It would be interesting to set up a study where you could somehow eliminate distinctiveness of an individual. How you would do that I have no idea.

  2. May 6th, 2013 at 23:49 | #2

    This was a very interesting article. I think the first question that comes to mind is the possibility of race playing a role in this study. Racial stereotypes have sometimes played a huge role judging who or what is untrustworthy, and I wonder if race as a characteristic and the stereotypes that fall under such a categorization make it easier to from someone to identify another as untrustworthy and thus remember him or her easier.

  3. May 13th, 2013 at 14:08 | #3

    Like Lori, I too wonder the effect that race might have on these results. Specifically, does this effect hold up across races that are not your own? It might also be possible that faces of different races show this effect to a lesser or greater extent. The own-race effect states that we are less likely to remember faces of people that do not share our race, so perhaps this phenomenom would impact these results in an interesting way. Overall, this was a really interesting read, and I found the results to be quite intriguing.

  4. xzhao
    May 15th, 2013 at 16:17 | #4

    You say in the third experiment that untrustworthy faces with matching untrustworthy descriptions improved memory and that the contrasting descriptions actually reduced the success of memory. I found that really interesting because when I think about why we are more likely to remember the untrustworthy looking people, I think that it’s because it triggers fight or flight from survival instincts and is natural. Because of this survival trigger, we have more emotion associated with it, and so, something similar to flashbulb memory, the more emotion that’s attached with the memory, the more likely we will remember it later on. Given this, one would think that the contradiction between the description and initial judgment would allow the memory to be more engrained rather than reduced. It’d be interesting to look at why it is we remember the untrustworthy people and the connection between emotion and memory.

  5. May 18th, 2013 at 16:25 | #5

    Like xzhao, I also related the findings to survival needs. It makes sense to me that a person would be better able to remember a person who looks untrustworthy, and even more so when they can confirm this untrustworthy suspicion as being true, because identifying threatening stimuli and being able to remember what it looks like so you can avoid it is logical to survival needs. I do wonder why a contradicting description to what the person looks like (untrustworthy description for a trustworthy looking person or a trustworthy description for an untrustworthy looking person) wouldn’t be remembered as well because it seems like the contradiction would make the person more distinct and memorable to a person. I found this to be an interesting study.

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