How We Judge Children Based on their Faces
Don’t judge a book by its cover. Appearances can be deceiving. Beauty is only skin-deep.
You’ve surely heard such sayings many times. However, people can’t help but form rapid judgments of people’s character just based on a glimpse of their face. You have probably already made these kinds of snap judgments today: Did the TV news reporter look intelligent? Did the kid crossing the road look confident? Should I trust that person when I give over my credit card details?
A lot can ride on a first impression. Indeed, impressions predict all sorts of social outcomes for adults and children alike. The social consequences of impressions might be particularly important to consider during childhood, a crucial period of development. For example, we know that children who look attractive are treated more positively at school and, therefore, may be given more opportunities to excel. Considering these social consequences, it is important to understand how people form first impressions.
Our research focuses on how adults form first impressions of children based only on seeing their faces. We asked adults to rate pictures of young children’s faces on 18 characteristics. For example, we asked research participants to rate how sweet, nice, innocent, shy, and curious (among other traits) each child looked. Based on these ratings, we found that the impressions that adults formed boiled down to just two basic judgments—niceness and shyness. This means that based on a glimpse at a child’s face, adults quickly make assumptions about how nice and how shy that child looks. Of course, these are separate judgments. A child can be judged high on one trait and low on the other, or they can be judged high on both, or low on both.
Furthermore, these impressions influenced adults’ ratings of how they said they’d behave toward the children, as well as their expectations about them. Adults were more likely to give an award to an especially nice-looking child and less likely to choose a child whose face suggested shyness to lead a class discussion. So, although adults might teach children not to “judge a book by its cover,” they do not always follow their own advice.
Are these first impressions of children the same ones that are important when we judge adults? Researchers who have investigated first impressions of adults’ faces have found that people make two primary judgments based on seeing someone’s face: trustworthiness (is the person likely to help or harm me?) and dominance (is that person capable of helping or harming me?). Many researchers believe that these impressions stem from mechanisms that evolved to detect facial signals of threat. For example, first impressions of dominance are influenced by cues of physical power, such as how masculine a face looks.
From an evolutionary perspective, detecting signals of threat would be very helpful during interactions with other adults. For example, the ability to rapidly detect emotional expressions that convey threat or facial signals of physical strength might help you avoid being attacked by a dangerous person. But, detecting threating signals from children’s faces doesn’t appear directly adaptive.
Instead, impressions of children’s faces may reflect the caregiving and nurturing social interactions that adults have with children. Even so, detecting signals of niceness in children might also be helpful when deciding whether that child might harm other children, which might include your own kids.
Keep in mind that these first impressions are not necessarily accurate. A child who looks nice might not always act nicely, and facial cues about shyness may not always indicate how shy a child actually is. This means that we should be cautious about relying on snap judgments of personality in everyday life. Understanding how and why we form first impressions are important first steps in understanding how our impressions of other people may be biased.
For Further Reading
Collova, J. R., Sutherland, C. A. M., & Rhodes, G. (2019). Testing the Functional Basis of First Impressions: Dimensions for Children's Faces Are Not the Same as for Adults' Faces. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 117(5), 900-924. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspa0000167
Dr. Jemma Collova is a Research Associate in the School of Psychological Science at the University of Western Australia. She conducts research on person perception and the development of children’s facial impressions.
Dr. Clare Sutherland is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Psychology at the University of Aberdeen, where she examines the influence of prior knowledge and stereotypes on facial impressions.