Physical Appearance Informs Impression Bias

A person’s physical appearance plays an essential role in defining the range of personality traits assigned to them. Social experiments show that individuals are attracted to people who are perceived good looking. Understanding biases in forming impressions reveal that people tend to assume that attractive people are good and engaging. The facial morphology and physical appearance send a strong message towards people, informing them about others’ personality traits. First impressions influence social, economic, and political decisions denoting the significance of establishing objective techniques to manage impression. While first impressions lead to misjudgment of character, people unconsciously advance impression bias based on others’ physical appearance, which affects the decision-making process.

The facial morphology influences the perceiver’s impression of another person’s personality traits during a first encounter. The face trait space is primarily inter-correlated with many other traits. This implies that intelligence emerges from the perception of other qualities on the face, including trustworthiness. Stolier et al. (2018) studied the conceptual structure where individuals assign personality traits based on facial morphology creating a face trait space (p. 9210). The research objective was to map the connection between a perceiver’s beliefs that a single personality trait informed by the face impression ties other traits together. The authors collected data from the Open Science Framework and performed statistical analysis to identify the conceptual face traits (Stolier et al. 2018). The research was divided into three studies with 113, 206, and 185 participants respectively. It followed a quantitative approach with a structured observation using questionnaires. The study revealed that individual face judgments subjectively affect a perceiver’s conceptual association of traits. This shows that the perceiver’s lay conceptual beliefs can lead to biased impressions based on others’ physical appearance.

The social experiment showing how appearances affect society reveals a high tendency of people placing others in distinct social classes based on their clothes and looks. The video showing a small girl, Anano, presented as both well and poorly dressed shows that people assign a specific social class to other people, and this classification determines their interactions. O’Brien et al. (2013) conducted a study assessing the role of physical appearance on obesity discrimination. The study aimed to test whether there was a correlation between discriminatory and prejudicial attitudes against obese people and the influence of personal ideologies on obesity discrimination. The research objective was to measure anti-fat prejudice using a universal measure of bias and prejudicial attitudes in obesity discrimination. The authors selected 102 participants to quantitatively assess obese and non-obese women applying for a managerial position (O’Brien et al. 456). The study followed a structured observation using questionnaires with a rating scale. The candidates’ resumes contained photos of the pre and post-bariatric surgery of the applicant. O’Brien et al. (2013) found that obesity discrimination was apparent across the hiring criteria. The study implies that the self-reported prejudice and discrimination of obese people based on their physical appearance aligns with empirical results.

Studies on facial impressions indicate that faces are evaluated on valence, and judgments are merely best approximations. Mattarozzi et al. (2017) investigated the impacts of facial appearance evaluations in healthcare delivery. The objective was to examine trustworthiness assessments based on patients’ facial appearance in the healthcare sector. The participants consisted of 96 nursing students in their freshman and did not have any professional experience with patients. In another study, 55 expert nurse practitioners with at least 2 years of work experience were recruited to participate in the study. The study was a naturalistic observation since the participants engaged in the study within their work environment in the hospital using questionnaires to collect data (Mattarozzi et al. 2017). The authors found that both groups of participants had a higher inclination towards caring for trustworthy faces. However, expert nurses had a lesser bias towards patients and non-identified individuals despite the trustworthiness of the face. The study concluded that expert health workers are less biased towards patients in healthcare settings and more sensitive to target care. This shows the importance of promoting healthcare awareness among novice nurses to reduce impression bias based on facial appearance.

The face yields information about a person’s social class, identity, and emotional state, meaning that a glimpse of a face infers many personality traits, including competence and trustworthiness. Kaufmann et al. (2017) studied the role of facial appearance and fitness impression on age bias in the hiring process. The objective was to evaluate the impact of facial age appearance and chronological age on selecting candidates for a position. The authors conducted two quantitative studies where the first one was online via MTurk involving 383 participants, although 2 were excluded, and the second one consisted of 264 HR professionals. The study followed a structured observation using questionnaires. Kaufmann et al. (2017) found that older candidates were less preferred for the selection process because of the perceived fitness impression (p. 7). However, the age bias abated when further information about the fitness of the candidate was presented. Further, the researchers documented that facial age-based bias was less prevalent in positions that required less contact with the customers. This implies that hiring decisions are dependent on fitness impressions associated with age resulting in higher discrimination for older candidates.

Nonverbal cues are essential to the daily social exchanges between people, and faces are nonverbal stimuli. The first impression that shapes attitudes towards particular people is imperative to understand the discrimination and stereotype that affect society’s different aspects. Huttner and Linden (2017) investigated the impact of manipulating a person’s physical appearance and modifying the perceived first impression. The objective was to test the extent of perception of “personality” change after manipulating the physical appearance of a person. The participants consisted of 92 people who were given a photo showing a woman with a curled hair and another one with the same person but with the hair combed back. The study followed a structured observation with the use of questionnaires. Huttner and Linden (2017) reported that the same person’s two photographs showed a significant difference in the emotional rating. The curled hair received a trusting impression, while the combed-back hair was associated with a reserved and defiant trait. The conclusion infers that people judge the personality of others based on their physical appearance.

To sum up, first impressions often assist the perceiver in forming conclusions of others’ personality traits based on physical appearance, which informs further decisions. Such perceptions elicit social behaviors towards individuals from hiring processes to criminal sentencing. The studies have shown that physical appearance plays an integral role in forming first impressions that promote stereotypes. However, provided further counter-stereotype information, the perceiver changes the narrative and tends to modify the initial judgment. Notably, one study revealed that expert nurses are more inclined to deliver care regardless of the patient’s trustworthiness. This is an important finding that can improve social interaction and fight stigma in people whose physical appearance does not appeal to the public.

Reference List

Hüttner, S.M. and Linden, M., 2017. Modification of first impression formation and “personality” by manipulating outer appearance. Psychopathology, 50(2), pp.141-145.

Kaufmann, M.C., Krings, F., Zebrowitz, L.A. and Sczesny, S., 2017. Age bias in selection decisions: the role of facial appearance and fitness impressions. Frontiers in Psychology, 8, pp. 1-14.

Mattarozzi, K., Colonnello, V., De Gioia, F. and Todorov, A., 2017. I care, even after the first impression: Facial appearance-based evaluations in healthcare context. Social Science & Medicine, 182, pp.68-72.

O’Brien, K.S., Latner, J.D., Ebneter, D. and Hunter, J.A., 2013. Obesity discrimination: The role of physical appearance, personal ideology, and anti-fat prejudice. International Journal of Obesity, 37(3), pp.455-460.

Stolier, R.M., Hehman, E., Keller, M.D., Walker, M. and Freeman, J.B., 2018. The conceptual structure of face impressions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115(37), pp.9210-9215.

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PsychologyWriting. 2023. "Physical Appearance Informs Impression Bias." September 14, 2023.

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PsychologyWriting. "Physical Appearance Informs Impression Bias." September 14, 2023.