Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
March 3, 2021

Research shows children also judge on facial features


When shown images of faces, children passed character judgements.

If a child you just met is not particularly nice to you, it may not be your fault. A recent psychological study from the American Psychological Association has provided evidence that young children tend to make snap character judgments based on physical features, showing that a judgmental nature may be more inherent in humans than previously believed. 

For centuries the consensus of the scientific community has held that adults tend to judge others based on certain character features; for instance, large eyes tend to be associated with innocence and dominance is assumed based on certain cheekbone structures. 

However, while it had been previously believed that the habit of making these associations developed with age, recent findings have shown that children as young as three may make these judgments as well, and for children as young as five, these judgments can affect their actions and behaviors towards others.

In the study, researchers conducted four experiments, each with about 350 children aged three to 13, and used samples of adult participants for comparison. The researchers tried to determine if certain behaviors would be associated with different facial features. 

Participants were shown different computer-generated faces, each created to have the facial features of people typically perceived as mean, nice, trustworthy, innocent, or some other characteristic. 

The participants were asked questions about the faces they were shown, including which character seemed the nicest or which character would be most likely to do certain activities. With this, the researchers found that both the adults and children made the stereotypical judgments about 88 percent of the time. Unsurprisingly the older the participant was, the more likely they were to make the predicted stereotypical judgment.

In another set of experiments, the researchers tested how these judgments would affect the children’s behavior. In this case the children were given two faces, either one with stereotypically trustworthy and one with untrustworthy features, or one with submissive and one with dominant features, and were asked which character they were more likely to give a gift to. 

They found that children over the age of five were more likely to bestow the gift upon the person with more trustworthy or submissive features. The researchers hypothesize that this may be because it may take an extra couple of years for children to develop the life experience to make more complex decisions about their own behavior.

Co-author of the study Mahzarin R. Banaji from Harvard University explained in an interview with ScienceDaily that this finding is extremely important in understanding human tendency for judgment. 

“We have a misguided notion that children are empty vessels into which culture slowly pours itself as they mature,” Banaji said.

“What this study uniquely shows is that these inaccuracies don’t just sit around in a child’s head, they manifest in the child’s behavior toward others who are viewed as good or bad based on features of the face that are irrelevant to decisions about character and personality.”

In addition, this research on human snap judgments is important because impressions of facial features, which are quite often false, can have a real impact on world events and decisions. 

In an interview with LiveScience, Tom Hartley, a cognitive neuroscientist and psychologist at the University of York, explained how judgments based on appearance affect the real world.

“It’s useful to know how we’re being judged on our appearance, especially since these judgments might not be accurate,” Hartley said. “Think of the effects on court cases or democratic elections, for example.”

Human behavior has evolved over time and is heavily guided by supposed gut reaction judgments. Based on these new findings, one should not feel hurt the next time a child does not like them upon first encounter.

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