Children as young as five make stereotypical inferences about people’s behaviour and modify their own behaviour towards them based merely on facial characteristics, a new study suggests.
It’s been long known that, within microseconds, adults judge others from their facial features – even in the presence of conflicting information.
These skewed character assessments can have major consequences. Subtle differences in the shape and size of people’s faces, eyebrows, nose, mouth, jaw and chin can influence who people elect as leaders, hire for work, or convict in a criminal trial.
Previously, it was shown that children as young as three decide how “nice” someone is – a proxy for “trustworthy” – based on that person’s facial characteristics. They also judge how competent (“smart”) and dominant (“strong”) those people are.
In the latest study, researchers led by psychologist Tessa Charlesworth from Harvard University, US, set out to test whether these perceptions also influenced children’s assumptions about how people might act, and how they themselves should act in response.
Over a series of experiments, the scientists recruited nearly 350 children aged between three and 13. They also included some adults for comparison.
The children and adults separately viewed pairs of computer-generated faces on a laptop and answered prompts about each target’s character and behaviour.
They were asked to decide whether the portraits represented a person who was trustworthy or untrustworthy, competent or incompetent, submissive or dominant.
In line with previous research, the first experiments showed children aged three judged faces they interpreted as trustworthy, competent or submissive as “nice”, and those interpreted otherwise as “mean”.
However, the perceptions didn’t influence how they thought the people might act. Children aged five and above, however, did attribute behaviours to people that matched their trait perceptions of them.
For instance, they said someone with a trustworthy face “helps other people when they are in trouble”, and a competent-looking person “can draw pictures that look just like real life”.
The consistency in linking behaviours to face traits increased with age; the oldest children almost always associated the expected behaviour with people’s facial characteristics.
Follow-up experiments tested how children would modify their own behaviour in response to the facial characteristics of others.
When looking at faces perceived to be trustworthy or untrustworthy, dominant or submissive, they were asked to choose which one should be given a gift.
Children aged five and older were more likely to favour the person with the trustworthy- or submissive-looking face. Again, this likelihood increased with age.
“For centuries, philosophers, scientists and people in general have recognised that facial features fundamentally shape how we judge and behave towards others,” says Charlesworth.
Says adds that she was surprised to discover children making similar inferences about people’s actions.
“Even very young children are using arbitrary and uncontrollable facial features like nose size and eyebrow width to make judgements about how others will behave, as well as about how to behave towards others, even with relatively little social experience,” she says.
But because these attributions don’t appear before the age of five, she adds, this suggests they are not innate.
The study is published in the journal Developmental Psychology.
Natalie Parletta is a freelance science writer based in Adelaide and an adjunct senior research fellow with the University of South Australia.
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