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People with a 'cold' face are judged more harshly than others

New research shows people often make a “moral judgment” based on facial expressions.

Gesichtszuege_EN_big Source: University of Basel

NEW RESEARCH HAS found that people may find social exclusion acceptable if the person being left out has a ‘cold’ facial expression.

Researchers from the University of Basel in Switzerland have found that an impartial third party is more likely to view excluding a person as acceptable if they look ‘cold’ or ‘incompetent’.

In several studies, the team of psychologists presented different male faces to a total of 480 participants.

The facial characteristics had been digitally altered to make the portraits appear “warm or cold and competent or incompetent”. The participants looked at each portrait for two seconds before deciding how acceptable they thought it was for a group to exclude this person.

In all studies, participants found it more acceptable to socially exclude people whose faces looked cold and incompetent. Exclusion was found least acceptable when those excluded looked warm and incompetent.

Researchers said whether uninvolved observers view social exclusion as morally justified or not “can be very important for the victim as a possible intervention depends on that judgment”.

Making such a moral judgment, however, is often difficult and time-consuming, which is why observers revert to relatively superficial indicators for guidance. One such indicator is the face of the excluded person.

‘Cruel’

Dr Selma Rudert from the University of Basel said a possible explanation for the results could be that people who look warm and incompetent are “often perceived as especially in need of protection and therefore excluding them from a group would be particularly cruel”.

A statement from the university notes: “Earlier studies have shown that humans have very clear-cut ideas of what a warm or cold person looks like. However, there is no evidence for any relation between facial features and personality traits.

In other words: although appearances are deceptive, individuals let them guide their judgment. The perceived warmth and competence in a person’s face play an especially important role in this judgment.

Rudert said the results “suggest that the first impression a person makes can also influence moral judgments that would actually call for objectivity”.

“It is conceivable that a cold and incompetent looking victim of exclusion would get less support or, in the worst case, bystanders may even actively join the ostracising group – all based on one glance at the face of the victim.”

The research is published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

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About the author:

Órla Ryan

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