Do you sense bias? Here’s the research on face preconceptions.

Face Shape Infographic

It’s an indescribable bias — hard to pin down — that after a staff member works well with colleagues and achieves goals, there is still a sense of underlying inequality when the staffer’s competence is judged in comparison to his or her fellow teammates.

Patricia Bouweraerts Author Byline

Ethnic and gender preconceptions are already widely reported — individuals must grapple with these. And yet in work environments where hiring practices are otherwise non-discriminatory, the occupational playing field is not level somehow. Additional unconscious prejudgments can happen at all levels in organizations.

For instance, CEOs are far more likely to have specific facial features. Restaurant servers with a certain hair color have been shown to earn more in tips when all other factors have been accounted for. In LinkedIn profiles, men with beards and women with glasses are thought to have more expertise.

Scientists have found several additional unconscious biases that laws simply don’t address. Some have even called partiality based on size and shape of facial features “face-ism.”

Bias based on face shape

A study co-authored by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and Princeton was published by Cell Press on October 21 in Trends in Cognitive Sciences. Results showed a correlation between facial features and attributed qualities such as competence, dominance, friendliness, and trustworthiness.

Victoria Woollaston wrote about this study in the science and tech pages of the Daily Mail.

Participants rated images of faces with larger foreheads and prominent noses as more competent, and round faces with large eyes and a small nose and chin as less competent, Woollaston wrote. Faces with wide eyes, small noses and high eyebrows were judged as passive, while those with distinct jawbones were considered dominant. Introverts were perceived by longer faces and smaller eyes, while preconceived extroverts possessed oval faces with plump cheeks.

Those in the study judged faces with close-set eyes and furrowed brows as untrustworthy, and those with prominent cheekbones, high eyebrows and smiling expressions as honest.

“While ‘babyface’ features, characterized by a round face, large eyes and a small nose and chin are generally seen as a sign of incompetence,” Woollaston wrote. “The reverse is true for strong, mature faces. Company chief executives who looked competent had a better chance of being hired by large successful companies, even when they performed no better than less competent-looking rivals, said the researchers.”

The stereotype of an intelligent face is that it is narrow.

“In both sexes, a narrower face with a thinner chin and a larger prolonged nose characterizes the predicted stereotype of high-intelligence, while a rather oval and broader face with a massive chin and a smallish nose characterizes the prediction of low-intelligence,” wrote Kleisner, Flegr, and Veronika Chvátalová in a 2014 study posted on PLOS.org.

Also revealed was a correlation between perceptions of intelligence in a face and emotions, such as happiness and anger.

“The ‘high intelligence’ faces appear to be smiling more than the ‘low intelligence’ faces,” the scientists wrote.

Intelligent-looking faces were also considered more trustworthy and happy.

“Moreover, perceived intelligence was also shown to be positively associated with perceived friendliness and sense of humor in both male and female faces but negatively related with perceived dominance in faces of women,” they wrote.

Eye Color Infographic

Bias by eye color

Contact lens maker CIBA Vision contracted CyberPulse, a division of Impulse Research Corporation in Los Angeles to conduct a survey about people’s perceptions of personality characteristics associated with various eye colors.

“The survey questioned 1,016 women ages 16 to 35,” wrote Rupali Chandola on Researchgate.net. “The results found that women often associate different eye colors with specific personality traits the study found that 34% of participants considered people with brown eyes intelligent, kind, and trustworthy. In contrast, people with blue eyes were considered kind, sweet, and sexy, but only 7% of participants described blue-eyes people as intelligent. Finally, 29% of research participants said they considered green eyes, the sexiest of all the different colors, and their owners to be creative, sexy and a bit devious.”

In a study by researchers in the Department of Experimental and Applied Psychology, University of Regensburg, Germany, the perception of attractiveness associated with blue eyes was measured. Also, participants rated attractiveness of eyes by the size of the pupil and whiteness in the area surrounding it.

Eye color did not have an effect on how attractive the participants rated the image of a face.

“However, the participants mentioned the color blue more often as a positive aspect than other iridal colors,” wrote Martin Gründl, Sebastian Knoll, Marita Eisenmann-Klein, and Lukas Prantl in the study’s abstract.

Further, the participants rated eyes with larger pupils and brighter white surrounding the pupil as a younger and more attractive eye.

Bias according to beauty

First of all, scientists have found no correlation between attractiveness and intelligence. Instead, they have found an association between attractive faces and how intelligent they are prejudged by others.

“Perceived intelligence positively correlated with attractiveness in both men and women,” wrote Karel Kleisner, Veronika Chvátalová, and Jaroslav Flegr on PLoS One.

They remarked that there is no real basis for this prejudgment.

“Similarly, other studies have reported close to zero correlation between attractiveness and actual intelligence in adults,” Kleisner, Chvátalová, and Flegr wrote.

But the preconception does exist.

“It has long been known that symmetrical faces are considered more comely, and that people assume that handsome folks are intelligent and good,” wrote Catherine Saint Louis in an article in The New York Times.

Bias of hair color

“Startling new psychological research challenges previous thinking that hair color is merely about personal preference,” wrote Raj Persaud, M.D. and Adrian Furnham, Ph.D., in an article on PsychologyToday.com. “Instead, a massive consensus appears to exist on which hair color is preferred, revealing such severe prejudice associated with the tint of your locks, that the preference could border on racial discrimination.”

They wrote that one study found blonde female servers received more tips than those with brown hair, and in another study men rated images of brunettes as the most intelligent women, but also the most arrogant.

Red-haired people, both male and female, have been shown to be more respected in business than other shades of tresses. Researchers at the University of Tennessee and Dalton State College analyzed the hair color of 500 top London Financial Times Stock Exchange (FTSE) Chief Executive Officers.

“Redheads, while normally a minute number in the U.K. population, were over-selected to run some of the most successful companies,” wrote Persaud and Furnham about the study by Margaret Takeda, Marilyn Helms and Natalia Romanova. “Stereotypically this would be expected, the authors of this study entitled ‘Hair color stereotyping and CEO selection in the United Kingdom,’ argue that redheads are perceived to be competent, though not especially congenial.”

Also, only two of the 500 CEOS were female, revealing possible additional bias by gender.

Hair Color Bias Infographic

Facial hair bias

Females with facial hair face a strong prejudgment.

“A slight majority of U.S. adults, 53 percent, would say ‘no’ when asked if they were likely or unlikely to hire a woman for a public role who had hair on her face,” wrote data journalist Isabel von Kessel on Statista.com. “This is the result of a YouGov survey of 2,159 adults at the end of June 2017.”

Men with facial hair, however, are thought of as masculine and competent, wrote Christian Jarrett, for the BPS Research Digest, posted on Digest.bps.org.uk.

Jarrett wrote that in a 2014 paper by scientists at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada, bearded men were seen as more trustworthy.

“Similarly, another study, from 1990, involved participants looking at ink sketches of job applicants — those with beards were seen as more competent (as well as more attractive),” he wrote. “And this study of LinkedIn profile pictures found that bearded men were considered to have more expertise (by the way, the same researchers found that spectacles (glasses) had the same image-enhancing benefit for women).”

Conversely, he wrote that bearded men have also been judged as more likely to have committed a crime when pictures were shown to study participants. So, there is a difference based on context.

“Seeing that your male doctor is bearded might make him seem more experienced and expert, for instance, but seeing that a criminal suspect is bearded might make him seem more aggressive and threatening,” Jarrett wrote.

Also, surprisingly, participants in another research project judged that images of male front desk hotel workers were less assuring and competent than a clean-shaven clerk, he added.

Some physical factors can be controlled to a greater degree

“People who make more eye contact are perceived as more intelligent,” wrote Jarrett in another aticle on Digest.bps.org.uk.

He added that people who speak somewhat faster are thought to be more competent, while those who use “um” and “ah” quite a bit are judged not as knowledgeable.

“Research in 2012 involved observers rating pictures of men and women who were depicted with various numbers of facial piercings,” Jarrett wrote. “As the number of piercings went up, the ratings of intelligence went down. On the other hand, a 2008 study found that a woman was judged to be more artistic and creative when she was shown with more piercings.”

Participants in one study associated baldness with height and brawn.

“When researchers at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, photoshopped pictures of men, so that they appeared to have shaved heads, the men were judged to be ‘more dominant, taller, and stronger than their authentic selves,’” he added.

Hair style can convey a message

Chris Serico of TODAY.com interviewed several experts on how different hair styles express personality traits or perceived capability to others in the workplace.

“The hair pros TODAY.com spoke to agreed that generally speaking, people with curly hair aren’t taken as seriously as their straight-haired counterparts,” he wrote.

A social psychologist and three hair stylists were interviewed for Elle.com in the article, “Is Your Hair Holding You Back?”

Curly hair is seen by some as friendly and fairly brave — that the employee might be willing to go out on a limb for their company, wrote Emily Hebert on Elle.com. The experts recommended making sure curly hair is styled, not frizzy, under control, and perhaps worn in shorter styles.

Shorter hair is perceived as confident, powerful, and professional while long hair is more casual — even while it is attractive and youthful, Serico wrote. At one large corporation, of all the women at the top of the organizational chart, none had hair that reached the shoulders.

Bold hair colors such as super-blonde can send the message that a person is creative — dramatic hues, and blunt cut bangs, may work for artsy people in highly creative fields, Hebert wrote. Side-swept bangs are more associated with office settings.

Further, brother and sister John and Catherine Walter, conducted a study in 1999 entitled “Hair Part Theory.

“In matching the hair parts of U.S. congressmen, state governors, and presidents against key success factors, the Walters found that a left part draws unconscious attention to activities controlled by the left hemisphere of the brain — i.e., logic, problem-solving, linear thinking, etc. — and that politicians with left parts historically fare better,” Hebert wrote.

She added that a right part draws more attention to right-brained strengths such as artistic expression, musical skills and nonlinear thinking.

Females who wear makeup are judged as more competent

Light makeup has been shown to improve the respect and trust shown to women by co-workers.

“It increases people’s perceptions of a woman’s likability, her competence and (provided she does not overdo it) her trustworthiness, according to a new study, which also confirmed what is obvious: that cosmetics boost a woman’s attractiveness,” wrote Catherine Saint Louis in a 2011 New York Times article.

The study was commissioned by Procter & Gamble, and researchers conducting the study were comprised of a diverse team; Nancy L. Etcoff and Lauren E. Haley (Harvard University), Shannon Stock (Dana-Farber Cancer Institute), Sarah A. Vickery (Procter & Gamble Cosmetics), and David M. House (Boston University).

“The participants judged women made up in varying intensities of luminance contrast (fancy words for how much eyes and lips stand out compared with skin) as more competent than barefaced women, whether they had a quick glance or a longer inspection,” Saint Louis wrote.

With a longer time to evaluate the images, participants rated the trustworthiness of the more dramatically made up women as less trustworthy.

“Length of inspection time did not change the effect for competence or attractiveness,” wrote the study’s authors on Journals.Plos.org. “However, with longer inspection time, the effect of cosmetics on likability and trust varied by specific makeup looks, indicating that cosmetics could impact automatic and deliberative judgments differently.”

Facial expression may override perceptions based on features

If you have natural physical features that are perceived as dominant, unattractive or untrustworthy, expressions such as smiling may positively impact others’ perceptions when meeting you, according to scientists at the University of Glasglow, Scotland.

Their research found that activating muscle groups such as the “inner and outer brow raiser,” and “lip corner and cheek raiser” affect pre-assessments of trustworthiness. They added that facial expressions affected study participants’ judgments of another’s trustworthiness and dominance, but the expressions did not have as great an effect on perceived attractiveness.

The above 2014 study was conducted by Daniel Gill, Philippe Schyns, Oliver Garrod and Rachael Jack, and was published in Psychological Science, according to Journals.Sagepub.com.

Researchers in England and Australia also found that an expression can affect prejudged characteristics, this time including attractiveness.

“In a 2017 article in the British Journal of Psychology, researchers Clare A. Sutherland (University of Western Australia), Andrew W. Young (University of York), and APS Fellow Gillian Rhodes (University of Western Australia) focused on two specific sources of within-person variability in facial impressions: emotional expression and viewpoint,” according to PsychologicalScience.org.

They studied both the effects of different facial expressions, and of viewing these expressions from the front and side.

“For example, happy faces were thought to be more trustworthy, and angry and disgusted faces less trustworthy, when a person was viewing a forward-looking face compared with a three-quarter-profile or a full-profile face,” according to PsychologicalScience.org.”

Forward-looking angry faces were seen as more dominant. Happy faces observed straight ahead were judged as more attractive, and disgusted faces less attractive.

The predisposition toward judging a happy face as trustworthy and attractive is an unexpected bias that may somewhat level the playing field, as this is an element for which most working people can exercise an amount of control, at no cost, and with practice.

Happy, the new capability.

Have your say