Young Children Form First Impressions From Faces
Association for Psychological Science

Just like adults, children as young as 3 tend to judge an individual’s character traits, such as trustworthiness and competence, simply by looking at the person’s face, new research shows. And they show remarkable consensus in the judgments they make, the findings suggest.

The research, led by psychological scientist Emily Cogsdill of Harvard University, shows that the predisposition to judge others based on physical features starts early in childhood and does not require years of social experience.

The study is published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

Prior research has shown that adults regularly use faces to make judgments about the character traits of others, even with only a brief glance. But it’s unclear whether this tendency is one that slowly builds as a result of life experiences or is instead a more fundamental impulse that emerges early in life.

“If adult-child agreement in face-to-trait inferences emerges gradually across development, one might infer that these inferences require prolonged social experience to reach an adultlike state,” Cogsdill and colleagues write. “If instead young children’s inferences are like those of adults, this would indicate that face-to-trait character inferences are a fundamental social cognitive capacity that emerges early in life.”

To explore these ideas, the researchers had 99 adults and 141 children (ages 3 to 10) evaluate pairs of computer-generated faces that differed on one of three traits: trustworthiness (i.e., mean/nice), dominance (i.e., strong/not strong), and competence (i.e., smart/not smart).

After being shown a pair of faces, participants might be asked, for example, to judge “which one of the people is very nice.”

As expected, the adults showed consensus on the traits they attributed to specific faces. And so did the children.

Children ages 3-4 were only slightly less consistent in their assessments than were 7-year-olds. But the older children’s judgments were in as much agreement as adults’, indicating a possible developmental trend.

Overall, children seemed to be most consistent in judging trustworthiness, compared to the other two traits. This suggests that children may tend to pay particular attention to the demeanor of a face – that is, whether it is broadly positive or negative.

Importantly, the findings do not address the question of whether the judgments the children are making are accurate inferences of character. Rather, they simply demonstrate that adults and children are consistent in the traits they attribute to faces, irrespective of the validity of those judgments.

While it is still unclear exactly when the tendency to infer character from faces first emerges, it might be possible to test younger children with the same computer-generated faces to find out.

“If such inferences take root early in development, as the data suggest, even infants might associate faces with trait-consistent behaviors, such as those conveying prosociality,” the researchers note.

Harvard psychology professor Mahzarin Banaji, the senior researcher on the study, said she and her colleagues next plan to examine how social experience over time influences social perception.

The Take Away Message

Unfortunately, the message is loud and clear – people are likely hardwired to presume intentions and characteristics from faces.

What can be done about it, is another matter altogether. Unfortunately, we can’t easily change the characteristics of our faces. Should we be born looking submissive, we may be forced into playing the part. While it doesn’t superficially assign us into unwanted roles, it does mean that the world will work more passively to aim us in that direction.

Required of you, should you not wish to be passive, yet born with a submissive looking face is to fight the uphill battle by using other nonverbal communication depicting the characteristics you wish to convey.

The corollary, of course, is that some men will be type-cast into the dominant role regardless of their desires simply by their facial characteristics. This can be troublesome when trying to gain the trust of others – especially, as shown here, children.

However, and yet to be researched may be that our faces show our underlying moods as decided by our hormones. It has been shown that testosterone plays a role in determining the faces of men, so it’s likely that it also shapes our personalities as well. In other words, high doses of testosterone makes our faces dominant, but also turns our personality dominant as well. The opposite is likely true for low testosterone and submissive faces.

It’s likely that evolution has favoured our predisposition to judge faces for some adaptive reason and the interplay between our hormones and face characteristics is likely the reason – face characteristics, it may turn out, are accurate predictors of our underlying personality.

Get a free start in learning body language today! Click here: Getting Started.

IMAGE BANK FROM STUDYWhich face best matches yours?























Get a free start in learning body language today! Click here: Getting Started.


The above story is based on materials provided by Association for Psychological Science.

E. J. Cogsdill, A. T. Todorov, E. S. Spelke, M. R. Banaji. Inferring Character From Faces: A Developmental Study. Psychological Science; 2014: 1-8.

Learn More Starting Today!

Learn the basics of body language quickly and easily by taking one of our tailor-made video courses!

Short on cash? Then read an ENTIRE comprehensive book on body language – it’s totally FREE!

Which body language video course will you start with?

1. The Secrets of Body Language

2. Body Language for Entrepreneurs

3. How to be a Human Lie Detector