Home > Memory > “How Valid Is My First Impression?” – Implicit Facial Trustworthiness Affects Social-Decision Making

“How Valid Is My First Impression?” – Implicit Facial Trustworthiness Affects Social-Decision Making

Do you believe in first impressions? Have you ever made a snapshot judgment about someone based on a brief interaction? All of us have experienced meeting someone new. Some studies suggest that after a mere seven seconds, we have already formed a first impression of that person. According to our impression of the person, we act and behave accordingly. Yet, we should ask ourselves, “How valid are our first impressions?”

Have you ever sat on a train and squirmed with discomfort because the guy next to you just seems “creepy?” Can you pinpoint what exactly makes him look creepy? Are his eyes set too close to each other?  Do his eyes look beady? Is his nose crooked? This poor guy is probably just staring out the window like the rest of the people on the train, probably just waiting to get to work. Although you have never met him before, his neutral facial expression somehow conveys a sense of untrustworthiness. Since he looks creepy, you will ignore him and maybe even move away from him. This example exhibits the dominant influence of perceived trustworthiness.

A facial signal such as smiling is an emotional cue that conveys friendliness and elicits trustworthiness. Can non-emotional facial signals such as a neutral facial expression also convey trustworthiness? Van’t Wout and Sanfey (2008) wondered whether we would interact differently with people who “looked” trustworthy and people who “looked” untrustworthy. In this study, participants played a Trust game on the computer. Imagine yourself as the participant. In this game, you are an investor who needs to make a risky investment decision with your new partner. If you have no prior experience working with your partner, what attributes will you rely on? Since previous research shows that humans are particularly good at processing faces, you can look at their facial signals. If a person looks trustworthy, wouldn’t you be more likely to trust them with your investment?

Before the game started, non-participants were asked to rate how trustworthy each partner looked like they would be.

Single Trial in Trust Game

The image above provides a visual representation of how each trial of the game looks like. In each trial, you are first given a picture of your partner whose face displays no particular emotion. If your partner looks trustworthy, you can choose to invest up to $10 in your partner. Cross your fingers and hope your partner acts trustworthy and repays your money! However, if your partner does not look trustworthy, you can choose not to invest any money in him or her. Next, you must patiently wait for your partner to return money gained from your investment or to selfishly keep all the money to him or herself. After multiple trials of playing the computer game, you are given a series of faces (including some of your previous partners’ faces) and asked to rate how trustworthy you think that person is. The study found that participants invested more money in partners who “looked” trustworthy.

If your partner looks trustworthy, you probably will take a risk and invest some money in your partner. But what if he failed to return your investment? Would you continue to invest in him? I would hope not! Unfortunately, researchers found that as long as your partner “looks” trustworthy, you still perceive him as trustworthy. Watch out! Next time you think a person looks trustworthy, remember that he or she may not necessarily act trustworthy! Be skeptical of people who look trustworthy because perceived trustworthiness provides a dominant influence on your initial impression.

Although you may heavily rely on your first impression of someone, these first impressions may not be as accurate as we hope for them to be. Remember the cliché “Don’t judge a book by its cover?” Follow, practice, and strictly adhere to it. I propose that the best way to know someone is to spend time with that person. By taking time to get to know a person, we can learn many different factors that will influence and modify our first impression of that person. To answer the question “How Valid Is My First Impression,” the unsatisfying answer is: It depends. We should rely on first impressions as tools to assess another person. But keep in mind that first impressions can be misleading as well!



Van’t Wout, M., & Sanfey, A. G. (2008). Friend or foe: The effect of implicit trustworthiness judgments in social decision-making. Cognition108(3), 796-803. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2008.07.002.


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