At some point, someone has probably told you not to "judge a book by its cover." That's a nice sentiment, though it's potentially an inaccurate metaphor. In terms of literal books, a cover can be such a reflection of poor taste that you can pretty much guess the accompanying text is bad as well. Further, we all know it's just not possible: Making a judgement about someone or something tends to happen in seconds, based on the information that can be relayed in that amount of time. That means we often make value calculations based on appearance, regardless of the metric's accuracy.
A new report from researchers at the University of Basel in Switzerland, led by Dr. Selma Rudert, recently explored how and why we use others' appearances to rationalize the way in which we interact with them. The researchers constructed three different studies to find out if people consider someone's looks alone as a valid excuse for social exclusion. Troublingly, they found that most people feel just fine ostracizing someone if their facial features somehow indicate that they deserve it. According to the study, if your cover makes you look cold-hearted jerk who seems incompetent, people will feel completely justified when it comes to leaving you out of the in-group.
The study asked participants to evaluate multiple scenarios in which a group has decided to ostracize someone. There was no reason given for the social exclusion, but the participants were shown a pictures of fictional people in which their facial expressions had been manipulated using a statistical model. A person's features were either adjusted to look friendly or to look cold, and competent or incompetent. Afterwards, the participants had to evaluate the group's decision.
Overwhelmingly, people thought it was fine for the group to kick out someone who looked both cold and incompetent. When the researchers followed up to try to figure out why, they found that the participants associated the mean-looking people with feelings of "disgust," which is harsh!
People who are told—or who proclaim—they have "resting bitch face" (RBF) know this well. These unfortunate souls can't help it if they look angry, dissatisfied, or just blank when they're really feeling quite happy or even enthusiastic. One long-standing sufferer of RBF explained to me how her condition has held her back socially. "I would say that my face's resting position intimidates people," she said. "People have always assumed that I am unhappy or have been intimidated by me because of some aspect of my face."
Rudert elaborated on this plight. "Individuals tend to exclude people from a groups who they perceive as troublemakers or selfish in order to restore the harmony and the cohesion of their group," she said. "Since individuals use facial features of others for their moral judgments, people whose faces appear both cold and incompetent might be more likely to be perceived as such troublemakers—and consequently, individuals judge it as more acceptable to exclude them."
Her research doesn't only confirm that those with persistently sullen features are doomed: It also suggests that we're probably way too nice to people with sweet faces. In the study, exclusion was found least acceptable when those excluded looked warm and incompetent. Rudert says that these people are often perceived as especially in need of protection, even when it's not necessarily deserved.
"Research has shown that persons with a so-called 'babyface' receive more help from others and are less likely to be found guilty for intentional criminal acts," Rudert said. "Of course, this also does not mean that we should automatically distrust a person with a nice face. But we should try to let our judgement not be influenced by these factors and rather invest the time and energy to try to get to know the person or understand the situation more fully."
She added, "Unfortunately, this is not as easy as it sounds, since facial information has been found hard to ignore and might even influence our judgements if more informative indicators about a person's character become available."