Faces to Fear or Trust?

In a previous blog post, we commented on research out of Princeton University that attempted to determine the face of an individual that seemed “trustworthy”.

In the same study, Assistant Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs at Princeton University Alexander Todorov and research specialist Nikolaas Oosterhof attempted to search for a way to define the characteristics of a person’s face that conveys a sense that they can be either trusted or feared. Their study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and was titles “The functional basis of face evaluation”.

To perform their studies, the researchers showed unfamiliar faces to subjects and asked them to describe characteristics of the faces that indicated certain personality traits such as aggressiveness. After analyzing the subject’s responses, the researchers narrowed down specific traits that were consistently described as being associated with certain personality traits and then showed the sameĀ  faces to another group and “asked them to rate each face for the degree to which it possessed one of the dozen listed traits“.

As a result of the data gathers, Todorov and Oosterhof found that humans make “split-second judgments on faces on two major measures — whether the person should be approached or avoided and whether the person is weak or strong”.

From there, the Princeton researchers used a commercial computer software program that generated composites of humans faces possessing the same characteristics based of their previous research. They asked another group of subjects to look at 300 faces and rate them for traits such as trustworthiness, dominance and threat.

The results of their research showed that there were common features of faces that suggested trustworthiness, dominance and threat. See below for an example of faces that are trustworthy and least trustworthy.

Princeton University researchers have developed a computer program that analyzes the facial features that make people appear trustworthy or fearsome. Below are some of the most extreme examples showing computer-generated faces displaying these characteristics.

Here is a face Princeton researchers found to be most trustworthy in the study.

Credit: Oosterhof & Todorov

This face is considered neutral because of its blank expression.

Credit: Oosterhof & Todorov

Here is a face Princeton scientists concluded to be least trustworthy, according to the study findings.

Credit: Oosterhof & Todorov


As stated in an article released by Princeton University, “While it may be true that people have little control over their facial features, the study also indicates that expressions may be important as well, which could have implications for people in jobs that require extensive interactions with the public. The research was supported by the National Science Foundation and a Huygens Scholarship from the Netherlands Organization for International Cooperation in Higher Education”.

One response to “Faces to Fear or Trust?”

  1. This is interesting and thanks for pointing it out. As a general comment, I think you guys have been doing a great job of pointing out research and trends in the field.
    Appreciated!
    -mike.

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