Snap Judgments

Snap Judgments

Think first impressions don't matter? Some research shows that we form lasting opinions of people in just a fraction of a second.


Clocking first impressions. I'm Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Like it or not, we all judge people by their faces: not just on attractiveness, but also trustworthiness, competence, and likeability. Princeton University psychologists Alexander Todorov and Janine Willis found that people made these judgments after seeing a face for just a tenth of a second and that their opinions didn't change if they were given more time. Todorov says it’s possible to override these snap judgments with objective information.


The question is that in many important contexts, you might not have the chance to collect the additional information. This is a potential problem.

What's more, people sometimes make up their minds before seeking out the facts—in contexts ranging from singles bars to job interviews to elections. I'm Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.

Making Sense of the Research

We would all like to think of ourselves as fair, rational people. However, research has shown that we’re hard-wired to judge people by their appearances, even if we aren’t aware of it. For example, it’s been shown that people generally agree on who is attractive and who isn’t. We make these judgments very quickly. What’s more, these judgments appear to have far-reaching effects, since attractive people tend to earn more money, get better grades in school, and get hired more easily than unattractive people.

Todorov and Willis’ work adds to this knowledge in a couple of important ways. First, they demonstrate that we make snap judgments not just about seemingly superficial qualities like attractiveness, but also about deeper virtues like trustworthiness and competence, even though these qualities have nothing to do with a person’s appearance. Second, their research shows that these judgments, too, are made in literally less than the blink of an eye. A longer look doesn’t really affect our opinion.

In their experiments, Todorov and Willis flashed pictures of faces on a video screen for a tenth of a second, half a second, or a full second. They asked volunteers to rate how attractive, trustworthy, competent, or likeable the faces were, and to rate their own confidence in that opinion. The key finding was that it didn’t matter how long the volunteers had to look: although their confidence went up when they had more time, their opinion of each face didn’t significantly change. Keep in mind that a tenth of a second is barely enough time to even realize you saw a face, let alone remember what it looked like. So the volunteers were really going with a gut reaction. When they had more time to look at the face, the volunteers generally felt that their gut reactions were correct.

As you heard, it was possible to override these gut reactions. If the researchers gave the volunteers concrete information to go along with a face—for example, that someone had stolen from their office, or returned a wallet full of money that they found on the street—the effect of that information was stronger than the reaction to the person’s appearance. But that doesn’t mean that these snap judgments ever completely go away. In real life, not all information is crystal clear. It’s possible that given ambiguous circumstances (for example, if something went missing from your house while a plumber was working there), we may be more likely to give trustworthy-looking people the benefit of the doubt, or we might be quicker to accuse people who look untrustworthy. If that’s true, then unethical people who look trustworthy may be able to manipulate and exploit others easily, while honorable people who look untrustworthy might be unfairly distrusted or even punished.

The research also raises another question: what makes a person look trustworthy, competent, or likeable? It’s been found that across cultures, people with symmetrical facial features are considered more attractive than those with less symmetrical features. Is there some objective, measurable standard that people use to judge trustworthiness? If so, are people with those features privileged in society? And can anything be done to counteract that bias? To start, Todorov says he plans to find out if people agree on what these virtues look like.

Now try and answer these questions:

  1. How did this research add to our knowledge about snap judgments?
  2. Why is it significant that someone’s opinion of a particular face was the same whether the face appeared for a tenth of a second or a full second?
  3. How would you design an experiment to determine only whether or not people agree on which faces appear trustworthy (or competent, or likeable)? How would that differ from an experiment that sought to identify the objective, physical qualities of a seemingly trustworthy (or competent, or likeable) face?
  4. If people do, in fact, form lasting snap judgments about traits like trustworthiness, how else might that impact society? What are other implications of this research not mentioned above?

You may want to check out the September 15, 2006 Science Update Podcast to hear further information about this Science Update and the other programs for that week. This podcast's topics include: Music composed by a volcano, how quickly we judge others, wildfires release mercury, good news about recovering from stroke and heart attacks, and a contagious cancer in dogs.

Going Further

For Educators

For more about the relationship between attractiveness and body symmetry, see the articles Beauty, by the Australia Broadcasting Corporation’s Dr. Karl, and Looking Good, by Charles Feng, in the Journal of Young Investigators.

The book Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell, examines the role of snap judgments in many aspects of everyday life.

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