Alexander Todorov on the science of first impressions

TodorovWe make up our minds about others after seeing their faces for a fraction of a second—and these snap judgments predict all kinds of important decisions. For example, politicians who simply look more competent are more likely to win elections. Yet the character judgments we make from faces are as inaccurate as they are irresistible; in most situations, we would guess more accurately if we ignored faces. So why do we put so much stock in these widely shared impressions? What is their purpose if they are completely unreliable? In Face Value, Alexander Todorov, one of the world’s leading researchers on the subject, answers these questions as he tells the story of the modern science of first impressions. Here he responds to a few questions about his new book.

What inspired you to write this book?

AT: I have been doing research on how people perceive faces for more than 10 years. Typically, we think of face perception as recognizing identity and emotional expressions, but we do much more than that. When we meet someone new, we immediately evaluate their face and these evaluations shape our decisions. This is what we informally call first impressions. First impressions pervade everyday life and often have detrimental consequences. Research on first impressions from facial appearance has been quite active during the last decade and we have made substantive progress in understanding these impressions. My book is about the nature of first impressions, why we cannot help but form impressions, and why these impressions will not disappear from our lives.

In your book, you argue that first impressions from facial appearance are irresistible. What is the evidence?

AT: As I mentioned, the study of first impressions has been a particularly active area of research and the findings have been quite surprising. First, we form impressions after seeing a face for less than one-tenth of a second. We decide not only whether the person is attractive but also whether he or she is trustworthy, competent, extroverted, or dominant. Second, we agree on these impressions and this agreement emerges early in development. Children, just like adults, are prone to using face stereotypes. Third, these impressions are consequential. Unlucky people who appear “untrustworthy” are more likely to get harsher legal punishments. Those who appear “trustworthy” are more likely to get loans on better financial terms. Politicians who appear more “competent” are more likely to get elected. Military personnel who appear more “dominant” are more likely to achieve higher ranks. My book documents both the effortless nature of first impressions and their biasing effects on decisions.

The first part of your book is about the appeal of physiognomy—the pseudoscience of reading character from faces. Has not physiognomy been thoroughly discredited?

AT: Yes and no. Most people today don’t believe in the great physiognomy myth that we can read the character of others from their faces, but the evidence suggests that we are all naïve physiognomists: forming instantaneous impressions and acting on these impressions. Moreover, fueled by recent research advances in visualizing the content of first impressions, physiognomy appears in many modern disguises: from research papers claiming that we can discern the political, religious, and sexual orientations of others from images of their faces to private ventures promising to profile people based on images of their faces and offering business services to companies and governments. This is nothing new. The early 20th century physiognomists, who called themselves “character analysts,” were involved in many business ventures. The modern physiognomists are relying on empirical and computer science methods to legitimize their claims. But as I try to make clear in the book, the modern claims are as far-stretched as the claims of the old physiognomists. First, different images of the same person can lead to completely different impressions. Second, often our decisions are more accurate if we completely ignore face information and rely on common knowledge.

You mentioned research advances that visualize the content of first impressions. What do you mean?

AT: Faces are incredibly complex stimuli and we are inquisitively sensitive to minor variations in facial appearance. This makes the study of face perception both fascinating and difficult. In the last 10 years, we have developed methods that capture the variations in facial appearance that lead to specific impressions such as trustworthiness. The best way to illustrate the methods is by providing visual images, because it is impossible to describe all these variations in verbal terms. Accordingly, the book is richly illustrated. Here is a pair of faces that have been extremely exaggerated to show the variations in appearance that shape our impressions of trustworthiness.

Faces

Most people immediately see the face on the left as untrustworthy and the face on the right as trustworthy. But notice the large number of differences between the two faces: shape, color, texture, individual features, placement of individual features, and so on. Yet we can easily identify global characteristics that differentiate these faces. Positive expressions and feminine appearance make a face appear more trustworthy. In contrast, negative expressions and masculine appearance make a face appear less trustworthy. We can and have built models of many other impressions such as dominance, extroversion, competence, threat, and criminality. These models identify the contents of our facial stereotypes.

To the extent that we share face stereotypes that emerge early in development, isn’t it possible that these stereotypes are grounded in our evolutionary past and, hence, have a kernel of truth?

AT: On the evolutionary scale, physiognomy has a very short history. If you imagine the evolution of humankind compressed within 24 hours, we have lived in small groups during the entire 24 hours except for the last 5 minutes. In such groups, there is abundant information about others coming from first-hand experiences (like observations of behavior and interactions) and from second-hand experiences (like testimonies of family, friends, and acquaintances). That is for most of human history, people did not have to rely on appearance information to infer the character of others. These inferences were based on much more reliable and easily accessible information. The emergence of large societies in the last few minutes of the day changed all that. The physiognomists’ promise was that we could handle the uncertainty of living with strangers by knowing them from their faces. It is no coincidence that the peaks of popularity of physiognomists’ ideas were during times of great migration. Unfortunately, the physiognomists’ promise is as appealing today as it was in the past.

Are there ways to minimize the effects of first impressions on our decisions?

AT: We need to structure decisions so that we have access to valid information and minimize the access to appearance information. A good real life example is the increase of the number of women in prestigious philharmonic orchestras. Until recently, these orchestras were almost exclusively populated by men. What made the difference was the introduction of blind auditions. The judges could hear the candidates’ performance but their judgments could not be swayed by appearance, because they could not see the candidates.

So why are faces important?

AT: Faces play an extremely important role in our mental life, though not the role the physiognomists imagined. Newborns with virtually no visual experience prefer to look at faces than at other objects. After all, without caregivers we will not survive. In the first few months of life, faces are one of the most looked upon objects. This intensive experience with faces develops into an intricate network of brain regions dedicated to the processing of faces. This network supports our extraordinary face skills: recognizing others and detecting changes in their emotional and mental states. There are likely evolutionary adaptations in the human face—our bare skin, elongated eyes with white sclera, and prominent eyebrows—but these adaptations are about facilitating the reading of other minds, about communicating and coordinating our actions, not about inferring character.

Alexander Todorov is professor of psychology at Princeton University, where he is also affiliated with the Princeton Neuroscience Institute and the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. He is the author of Face Value: The Irresistible Influence of First Impressions.

New Brain & Cognitive Science Catalog

We invite you to scroll through the 2016 Brain & Cognitive Science catalog below.

Phishing for PhoolsDon’t miss Phishing for Phools! Nobel Prize-winning economists George A. Akerlof and Robert J. Shiller challenge the traditional idea that the free market is inherently benign and show us through numerous stories how sellers can manipulate and deceive us.

 

 

ThriveIn Thrive, Richard Layard and David M. Clark argue that the economic and social advantages of investing in modern psychological therapies more than make up for the cost, and that we cannot afford to ignore an issue that affects at least 20% of people in developed countries.

 

 

future of the brainThe Future of the Brain, edited by Gary Marcus and Jeremy Freeman, is a collection of essays that explore the exciting advances that will allow us to understand the brain as we never have before.

 

 

 

Secret of our SuccessJoseph Henrich makes the case that our success as a species can be attributed to our ability to socially connect with each other and benefit from a collective intelligence in The Secret of Our Success.

 

 

 

For these and many more titles in cognitive science, see our catalog above! And be sure to subscribe to our newsletter to get 30% off on select titles through November 13, 2015.

Fall Sale

Finally, if you’ll be attending the Society for Neuroscience Annual Meeting in Chicago from October 17-21, visit us at booth 126. You can also join the conversation on Twitter using #SfN15!

#TheDress: Consulting the experts on color

White and gold or blue and black are the questions that have been taking the world by storm. For those who managed to miss it, #TheDress is a picture that has been floating around the Internet. Some say it’s white and gold, while others swear by black and blue. Others have even switched their allegiances. Amazingly, one dress has sparked a huge debate over color and how humans perceive it.

Neuroscientists have started to chime in on the discussion with scientific evidence. If you are curious about neuroscience perhaps want to provide some concrete reasoning for your color choice, or would like to read more on the social history of color, check out these two books:


 

bookjacket Colour:
Why the World Isn’t Grey
Hazel Rossotti

 

bookjacket Black:
The History of a Color
Michel Pastoureau

 

Read this exclusive excerpt from the winners of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

The 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine has gone to John O’Keefe, May-Britt Moser and Edvard I. Moser. To celebrate, we are offering a free excerpt from The Future of the Brain, a collection of cutting edge neuroscience articles edited by Gary Marcus. In “Understanding the Cortex through Grid Cells,” May-Britt Moser and Edvard I. Moser write:

 

One of the ultimate goals of neuroscience is to understand the mammalian cerebral cortex, the outermost sheet of neural tissue that covers the cerebral hemispheres. All mammalian brains have a cortex, but during evolution, the size of the cortex has expanded enormously, and in the largest brains the growth has resulted in extensive folding, with much of the cortical surface getting buried in deep grooves, or sulci and fissures. The cortex is the site where most cognition and intellectual activity takes place. Thinking, planning, reflection, and imagination depend on it. Memories are stored there, and the cortex takes care of language interpretation as well as language production. Moreover, although the cortex can be found across the whole range of mammalian species, the expansion of this brain structure is thought to underlie the amplification of the intellectual repertoire in humans.

Continue reading here: http://press.princeton.edu/chapters/s2_10306.pdf

 

 

Infected: World Science Festival interviews Bradley Voytek, author of Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep

While zombies are running (or should I say, “staggering?”) around spreading their infections in Hollywood movies and TV shows, Bradley Voytek, author of Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep?: A Neuroscientific View of the Zombie Brain, is spreading knowledge about the field of neuroscience, the brain, and how it can all be better understood through the study of the undead.

In this new interview with the World Science Festival, Voytek discusses need-to-know matters such as zombie symptoms and probable causes, why some zombies are slow and others fast, and his general approach to writing the book with co-author Timothy Verstynen.

World Science Fair: What consequences are there when a zombifying agent brings a dead brain back to life?

Bradley Voytek: Neurons start to die off within minutes when there’s a lack of oxygen—especially neurons in the hippocampus, this seahorse-shaped area a couple inches in from your temple, which is pretty important for forming memories. So if, as in The Walking Dead, the zombie infection takes hold after someone dies and reanimates them, if there’s that couple minutes of delay before restarting, there’s going to be some brain areas dying off.

In the book, we call this the “time to resurrection” hypothesis. If you look at “fast zombies,” like in the movie 28 Days Later, the infection there takes just seconds to transform somebody from a normal person into this rage-fueled monster. We argue that because you’re only dead for a few seconds, there hasn’t been much damage to the physical substrate of the brain, so you’re still coordinated. But in Night of the Living Dead, the undead may have been dead for weeks or months, so they would have decayed quite a bit.

Source: http://www.worldsciencefestival.com/2014/09/smart-reads-zombie-dream/

Ultimately, Voytek hopes Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep? will appeal to “people who don’t normally care about [the principles of neuroscience],” and they will “end up accidentally learning something about the brain.”


 

bookjacket

Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep?
A Neuroscientific View of the Zombie Brain
Timothy Verstynen & Bradley Voytek

A look within — MRI technology in action

It’s 2014, and although we don’t have flying cars or teleportation, we do have some truly amazing technologies. The video of a live birth posted below has been making the social media rounds in recent weeks, and it is a wonderful glimpse of the imaging possible through magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology.

To fully understand the history and future challenges of imaging technology, we recommend Denis Le Bihan’s book Looking Inside the Brain: The Power of Neuroimaging. Le Bihan is one of the leading scientists and developers of MRI technology, so who better to guide readers through the history of imaging technology from the x-ray and CT scan to the PET scan and MRI. He also explains how neuroimaging uncovers afflictions like stroke or cancer and the workings of higher-order brain activities, such as language skills and also takes readers on a behind-the-scenes journey through NeuroSpin, his state-of-the-art neuroimaging laboratory.

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kxwNqYwvaAI]
 

bookjacket

Looking Inside the Brain
The Power of Neuroimaging
Denis Le Bihan
Translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan

Under the knife with a zombie

[youtube:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XNjvipiJTjY]

Why do zombies act the way they do? Why, for instance, are they always looking to bite someone’s face off? Would a Snickers bar make them any less angry or violent? These are just some of the questions Tim Verstynen and Bradley Voytek try to answer in their new book Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep: A Neuroscientific View of the Zombie Brain.

In the video above, Verstynen and Voytek explain the nature of the relationship between the brain and emotions, but don’t let the animation and mumbling zombie fool you! These authors provide viewers with a glimpse into the field and history of neuroscience and how studying and stimulating the brain allows us to better understand complicated emotions. If you’re interested in the science behind what makes a zombie a zombie, or if you’re a grad student willing and ready to examine a zombie brain, check out the video as well as the book, Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep.

 


bookjacket Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep?
A Neuroscientific View of the Zombie Brain
Timothy Verstynen & Bradley Voytek 


We’re not the only ones obsessed with Zombies

imagesSure, we might not completely understand neuroscience, but knowing it has to do with the scientific study of the nervous system is good enough for most of us. We’re all also familiar with zombies, and I mean, how could we not be? AMC’s hit TV-show “The Walking Dead” has over 13 million viewers and countless zombie-based box office hits such as “Zombieland,” “I Am Legend,” and “World War Z,” suggest that while zombies are not taking over the world just yet, they are capturing our imagination. So what happens when we combine the field of neuroscience with the phenomenon that is “zombies?”

Enter Bradley Voytek, a UC San Diego neuroscientist whose “mutual love of zombies and brains has lead him to formalize the theoretical neuroanatomy of the zombie brain,”  according to the Zombie Research Society.

Wait a minute — zombies have a research society? Yes, it turns out the Zombie Research Society (ZRS) is an organization, founded by Matt Mogk, that dedicates itself to the “historic, cultural, and scientific study of the living dead.” On its website you will find zombie survival strategies, theories on historical outbreaks, and scientific articles on various subjects such as vaccines and Ebola. There’s even a list of the top 10 safest countries to live in during a world-wide zombie outbreak. (The US ranks 3rd just behind Canada and Australia)

Keen-eyed readers will also discover that Bradley Voytek is on the advisory board of the ZRS and that he will soon publish Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep?: A Neuroscientific View of the Zombie Brain, a popular science book that references zombie popular culture to help answer neuroscientific questions regarding brain function during sleep, the nature of sensory perception, and much more. You can sample some of this unique book here.

This is not the first zombie book we have published, nor will it be the last. You may wish to check out our other undead titles below.


 

bookjacket Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep?
A Neuroscientific View of the Zombie Brain
Timothy Verstynen & Bradley Voytek
bookjacket Zombies and Calculus
Colin Adams
bookjacket Zombie Economics:
How Dead Ideas Still Walk among Us
John Quiggin
bookjacket Theories of International Politics and Zombies
Daniel W. Drezner

Foreign Editions of John Quiggin’s “Zombie Economics”

While you’re waiting for Timothy Verstynen and Bradley Voytek’s Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep? A Neuroscientific View of the Zombie Brain and Colin Adams’s Zombies and Calculus to come out this fall, be sure to check out these foreign editions of John Quiggin’s Zombie Economics: How Dead Ideas Still Walk among Us.

Quiggin’s book examines the fallout of the recent financial crisis, and suggests how we might avoid another one. Though the recession apparently invalidated many of the assumptions behind market liberalism, and demonstrated the instability of speculative investments, Quiggin shows how these ideas still live in the minds of politicians, economists, and the public. He argues that the only way to avoid the dangers of these “zombie economics” is to find an adequate replacement for the market liberalism that has dominated popular economic thought for decades. Zombie Economics was also co-winner of Axiom Business’s 2012 Gold Medal Book Award in Economics.

Photos courtesy of John Quiggin.

USA:

AmericanZombie

China:

ChineseZombie ChineseZombie2

Japan:

JapaneseZombie

Korea:

KoreanZombie

Finland:

FinnishZombie

Italy:

ItalianZombie

France:

FrenchZombie

Other undead enthusiasts may enjoy Daniel W. Drezner’s Theories of International Politics and Zombies. Drezner’s 2011 book imagines the responses of the world’s governments to a global zombie pandemic, imaginatively using the supernatural to examine real-world political concerns. The book earned an honorable mention for the Association of American Publishers’ 2011 PROSE Award in Government and Politics. A new “Revived Edition” will be out this October, featuring a heavily updated text and a new epilogue examining the cultural significance of zombies in the public sphere.

Recommended Reading:

 cover_zombieeconomics Zombie Economics: How Dead Ideas Still Walk among Us by John Quiggin
 4-10 Drezner_TheoriesZombies_cvr Theories of International Politics and Zombies by Daniel W. Drezner
 DoZombiesDreamOfUndeadSheep Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep? A Neuroscientific View of the Zombie Brain by Timothy Verstynen and Bradley Voytek
7-18 Zombies Zombies and Calculus by Colin Adams

 

Gary Marcus to give public lecture: Towards a Theory of How the Brain Works

Marcus_Future_jktYou’re invited to a public lecture by Gary Marcus, co-editor of the forthcoming The Future of the Brain: Essays by the World’s Leading Neuroscientists, on Monday, March 31, 2014 at 6:00 p.m. in McCosh 50 at Princeton University.

The basic parts list of the brain is relatively well understood, but the logic of its operation remains almost entirely elusive, despite enormous technical advances. Even as our tools for understanding the brain become finer and finer grained, our theoretical apparatus for characterizing what we observe remains weak. In this talk, Professor Marcus will focus what we know about the six-layered sheet known as the neocortex, and will argue that two of the most dominant paradigms in theoretical neuroscience are inadequate. He will outline an alternative framework that aims to better bridge neuroscience with behavior, computation, development and evolutionary biology.

Gary Marcus, Professor of Psychology at NYU and Visiting Cognitive Scientist at the Allen Institute for Brain Science, is the author of four books including the NYTimes Bestseller Guitar Zero and frequently blogs for the The New Yorker. His research on language, evolution, computation and cognitive development has been published widely, in leading journals such as Science and Nature.

This event, sponsored by the Vanuxem Lecture Series, is free and open to the public. For more information, please visit http://lectures.princeton.edu/2013/gary-marcus-nyu-professor-of-psychology/.

Two for Tuesday – The Musical Mind & Shaping Jazz

Music is universal but what makes it so special? Why do some jazz songs become standards and others not? We are pleased to announce the publication of two new books to explore these questions and more. We invite you to read sample chapters online.

j10027reflections
Reflections on the Musical Mind:
An Evolutionary Perspective
by Jay Schulkin
With a foreword by Robert O. Gjerdingen

Read the introduction online:
http://press.princeton.edu/chapters/i10027.pdf

What’s so special about music? We experience it internally, yet at the same time it is highly social. Music engages our cognitive/affective and sensory systems. We use music to communicate with one another–and even with other species–the things that we cannot express through language. Music is both ancient and ever evolving. Without music, our world is missing something essential. In Reflections on the Musical Mind, Jay Schulkin offers a social and behavioral neuroscientific explanation of why music matters. His aim is not to provide a grand, unifying theory. Instead, the book guides the reader through the relevant scientific evidence that links neuroscience, music, and meaning.

Jay Schulkin is Research Professor in the Department of Neuroscience and member at the Center for the Brain Basis of Cognition, both at Georgetown University. He is the author of numerous books, including Roots of Social Sensibility and Neural Function, Bodily Sensibility: Intelligent Action, Cognitive Adaptation: A Pragmatist Perspective, and Adaptation and Well-Being: Social Allostasis.

 
j10026jazzShaping Jazz:
Cities, Labels, and the Global Emergence of an Art Form
by Damon J. Phillips

Read the introduction online:
http://press.princeton.edu/chapters/i10026.pdf

There are over a million jazz recordings, but only a few hundred tunes have been recorded repeatedly. Why did a minority of songs become jazz standards? Why do some songs–and not others–get rerecorded by many musicians? Shaping Jazz answers this question and more, exploring the underappreciated yet crucial roles played by initial production and markets–in particular, organizations and geography–in the development of early twentieth-century jazz.

Damon J. Phillips is the James P. Gorman Professor of Business Strategy at Columbia University and a faculty affiliate of Columbia’s Center for Jazz Studies and the Center for Organizational Innovation.