PEOPLE decide quickly how trustworthy a stranger is, based on what his face looks like. And experiments show that, regarding any particular individual, they generally come to the same conclusion. There really are, it seems, trustworthy and untrustworthy faces—though, surprisingly, there is little consensus among researchers as to whether someone whose face is deemed devious really is more likely to betray a trust. The perceivedly untrustworthy do, however, suffer for their phizogs. And a study published in this month’s Psychological Science suggests that in extreme cases—in America at least—this suffering may be fatal.
John Wilson and Nicholas Rule, psychologists at the University of Toronto, looked at convicted murderers in the American state of Florida, which retains the death penalty. They selected 371 prisoners on death row and a further 371 who were serving life sentences. To avoid confounding variables, all those chosen were male and were either black or white (no Asians or other ethnic groups). Each sample included 226 white convicts and 145 black ones. A group of 208 volunteers whom Dr Wilson and Dr Rule had recruited were then invited to rate photographs of each convict’s face for trustworthiness, on a scale of one to eight, where one was “not at all trustworthy” and eight was “very trustworthy”.
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