Developing cognitive models of facial first impressions

Court-room decisions can be affected by facial first impressions, whether or not they are accurate reflections of the person. We also rely on facial first impressions, of a person’s trustworthiness, attractiveness and capability, to judge strangers’ traits when browsing photos online.

Yet, these first impressions can vary as much based on changeable characteristics of the photo shown, as on the face itself. We compared two important changeable cues to facial impressions: emotional expression and photographic viewpoint (Sutherland, Young, & Rhodes, 2017). Critically, the emotional expression displayed affected impressions as much as the identity of the person did. The effect of viewpoint was minor, although it interacted with emotional expression to modify impressions. For example, people thought that angry faces looked less trustworthy when they were seen facing forwards, than when seen in profile.

We theorised that the viewpoint of the face conveys the social importance of the emotion, so that forward-facing photos suggest that the emotion is being directed at the viewer. Forming stronger impressions of people facing you might be adaptive: for example, someone who is angry with you may pose an immediate threat. Our work has helped lead a new research direction in the field, with the goal of understanding how changeable and potentially misleading photographic characteristics can modify many different aspects of face perception.