How Your Face Drive First Impressions
Christopher Philip

_76579650_facecartoonsResearchers led by Dr Tom Hartley, a neuroscientist at the University of York have found that minor changes to a face affect how that face is perceived during a first impression.

By converting faces to animations, the study’s authors were able to transfer the impressions that real faces made while stripping out other features not important to this specific study. Subtle changes were also done to make the faces appear more trustworthy, dominant or attractive.

“If people are forming these first impressions, just based on looking at somebody’s face, what is it about the image of the face that’s giving that impression – can we measure it exactly?,” said Hartley.

Given the ubiquitous use social media including LinkedIn and Tinder, one should pay particular attention to the impressions we make. The study shows us that we can easily tweak our image to convey the types of impression that we wish to construct.

The study used 1,000 images collected from various online sources. Evaluators then scored each image across 16 different social traits including perceived trustworthiness and intelligence. In the end, the qualities boiled down to the three main criteria including Approachability, Dominance and Attractiveness.

The three main dimensions of a first impression includes:

1) Approachability: Is this person likely to help or hinder me?
2) Dominance: Is this person capable of carrying out his or her intentions?
3) Attractiveness: Is this person young and good looking or a potential romantic partner?

Next, the team of researchers created a mathematical model to represent how the dimensions of the faces affected impressions.

With the formula at hand, the team then used computers to produce cartoon versions of the most and least approachable, dominant and attractive faces as well as variations fitting in between the extremes.

When the cartoon faces were shown to subjects, they yielded similar ratings across the dimensions which told the researchers that they successfully modeled the character traits.

The authors of the study.

The authors of the study.

While Hartley is careful not to claim to have discovered the universal features of each trait, he does believe that he has captured the main elements.

For example, a masculine face tends to be perceived as more dominant and a broad smiling face is seen as more approachable and trustworthy.

The results taken together, however, show that our bias, when we see a particular type of face, may affect how we receive strangers and, likewise, how we are received.

“It might be problematic if we’re forming these kind of judgments based on these rather fleeting impressions,” Dr Hartley said.

In a normal environment, this might not be a problem, but when we only see one image of someone, say online, and we form an impression based on this alone, it can produce troubling situations.

That said, the results can help organizations put forth better images of clients, or for animators interested in creating more life-like appearances carrying desired character dimensions.


Vernon, Richard J. W.; Clare A. M. Sutherland; Andrew W. Young, and Tom Hartley. Modeling First Impressions From Highly Variable Facial Images. PNAS. 2014. 111(32). doi: 10.1073/pnas.1409860111