Judge People By Their Looks? We All Do It—Here's How to Do It More Fairly
Ever seen someone and immediately thought that they look "shady"? Well, it could be based on cultural bias that depends on the density of the place you live.
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. His research on first impressions has been covered by media around the world, including the New York Times, the Guardian, the New Yorker, the Daily Telegraph, Scientific American, PBS, and NPR. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.
Alexander Todorov: So in the early days, including from the time of Aristotle and later in the 16th and 17th century most of physiognomy consisted of this whimsical comparisons between the physiognomy of humans and animals.
So for example, you would have a drawing of a human who presumably looks like a cow, and from there you will make all kinds of inferences that perhaps the character of the person matches the character of the cow—whatever that might be.
In fact if you look at the history of European history most of the 19th century's novels, a standard feature of this analysis that you have physiognomic descriptions of the characters.
So it was very, very popular and influenced not only marginal writers but big names like Balzac, Stendhal, and many others.
Now, interestingly enough in the early 20th century people no longer talk about physiognomy they talk about character analysis. And in fact a lot of the references are no longer to Lavater's whimsical ideas, but they're to evolutionary ideas. And the so-called character analysts, they were quite influential and they were involved heavily in business and recruitment of employees, but this is exactly the time when the new science of psychology arises and then psychologists are kind of skeptical about the claims of the character analysts—or really the new physiognomists.
The fact that we agree on this impression was discovered over 100 years ago in psychology, but psychologists at the time were really focused on the accuracy of the impressions and paid very little attention to the extremely interesting psychological fact that we actually agree on these impressions.
Very often in psychology, and generally in the social sciences lately, if you observe that there's a pervasive bias that is: it's something that feels fairly automatic and we can all do it. There is kind of almost immediate assumption that this might be actually wired, that it's something that we are born to be able to do.
Of course you can easily think of counterexamples like driving, which essentially becomes automatic and there's nothing evolutionary about driving—or reading.
But nevertheless things that seem to have been present always in our environment like faces, that seems like natural assumptions.
It's interesting actually, we've done some studies—there are many, many different inputs to impressions. One is emotional expressions, there's stereotypes about gender, there's cues about age and facial maturity, all of this go into our impressions. Another one that is very interesting is typicality.
So as it turns out we tend to like faces that are typical, that means faces that are closer to what we perceive as typical in our social environment. Now there's an interesting wrinkle because typicality is also culturally specific, especially if the different cultures are linked to different ethnicities and there's distinctive physiognomies, and that makes it worse.
We've done a study where we created morphs of a typical Japanese face and a typical Israeli face, and then we can interpolate the morph. So we can imagine like a typical Japanese face gradually turning into a typical Israeli face.
Now, if you ask Israeli and Japanese participants to evaluate the faces, what happens is as the face become more Israeli-looking the Israelis believe the face is becoming more trustworthy, and the other way around for the Japanese.
So in a sense to a large extent what we perceive as typical is shaped by our natural environment. And it's something that we very rapidly extract, we are incredibly good learners about faces.
And most likely people who live in New York City, with a hugely diverse face, will have a different notion of typicality if you live in a small rural town where there's not so much diversity.
And in this case this can lead to different kind of suboptimal outcomes because naturally we wouldn't trust people that do not look like us, not having any other information.
The reason why we will never be able to get rid of first impressions is because they serve important psychological functions.
That is in the absence of any other information we're trying the best we could to figure out what the other people are thinking. That doesn't mean that we wouldn't change our minds, on the contrary when you have good diagnostic evidence about the person or when you know about past behavior, that would change inferences based on appearance.
But most of the time if you don't have any other information people will act on this, and that may not to be in their best interest.
Starting back to Cesare Lombroso who wrote books like The Criminal Man and The Criminal Woman, and he claimed that he can identify these “inferior types” based on their facial features, to Francis Gaulton who invented composite photography, and in fact all of today's morphing methods are based on this method of composite photography. And the first application of the method was to identify the criminal type, so it has a very long history.
I think a very reasonable argument could be that we are kind of hardwired to figure out the intentions of other people, of the people around us, because what is the most important thing in our social life? It's other people!
And in interactions with strangers you're always trying to figure out what are their intentions? Are they good? Are they bad? What are they going to do? Can they hurt me, whether that’s physical or in a non-physical way? So these are things that have always been a concern for us.
But let's think in terms of evolutionary history. Well, for most of our evolutionary history we've basically lived in extended families, typically between five to eight individuals. All of these changes in the last 50,000—in fact even less—maybe in the last 20,000 years, when you have large societies—that is, if you imagine the human evolution compressed within 24 hours, we have been living with strangers surrounded by strangers in the last five minutes.
So it's not obvious at all that we are kind of endowed with reading the characters of other faces. I think there's good comparative evidence that in fact we are very good at picking up on social cues in the immediate situations.
So if you look, for example, at comparative studies, you look across all primates, it turns out that we are the only primate which has whites of the eyes. That is our iris is dark and then you have the white sclera, and then you have darker skin. There are no other primates with this kind of coloration. So why is that interesting or important?
Well, the fact that you have the white of the sclera makes it super easy to detect eye gaze. And eye gaze is very important for sharing social attention, we can communicate from a long distance, similar emotional expressions are very important, the fact that we are kind of the “naked ape” and the fact that our faces are not completely covered by hair makes it very easy to detect changes in skin colorations, which is often an indication of different kinds of emotional or mental states.
So we are very sensitive to changes, momentary changes in what we are observing, because these momentary changes are indicative of what is important in this situation, what is happening right now.
But it's hard to make the argument that somehow we are endowed also to read into faces the character of others. I think we have the natural propensity trying to figure out what these other people are thinking or feeling right now.
And I think the problem with physiognomy in the modern version is this assumption that because you can make these rapid inferences that's also informative about these people across time and situations.
Ever seen someone and immediately thought that they look "shady"? Sure, we all have. Well, it could be based on cultural bias that depends on the density of the place you live. If you live in a rural area you're more likely to assume that "someone that doesn't look like [you]" is less trustworthy (take that how you may). City dwellers have less of this bias simply because they're around so many other people, which is a new thing in human history. Alexander Todorov is the author of Face Value: The Irresistible Influence of First Impressions.
Nazi supporters held huge rallies and summer camps for kids throughout the United States in the 1930s.
- During the 1930s, thousands of Americans sympathized with the Nazis, holding huge rallies.
- The rallies were organized by the American German Bund, which wanted to spread Nazi ideology.
- Nazi supporters also organized summer camps for kids to teach them their values.
A Bund parade in New York, October 30, 1939.
Credit: Library of Congress
1930s AMERICAN FASCIST BUND CAMP HOME MOVIE BERGWALD NEW JERSEY<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="69d54b175b0d317cf9bfd688e4fa04f3"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/gOPeDaDcw3w?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Tea and coffee have known health benefits, but now we know they can work together.
Credit: NIKOLAY OSMACHKO from Pexels
- A new study finds drinking large amounts of coffee and tea lowers the risk of death in some adults by nearly two thirds.
- This is the first study to suggest the known benefits of these drinks are additive.
- The findings are great, but only directly apply to certain people.
Maybe you should enjoy this article with a cup of coffee or tea.<p> The <a href="https://drc.bmj.com/content/8/1/e001252?T=AU" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">study</a> involved 4,923 type 2 diabetics living in Japan. The average participant was 66 years old. All of the participants were taken from the rolls of the Fukuoka Diabetes Registry, a study geared at learning about the effects of new treatments and lifestyle changes on the health of diabetics. <br> <br> The participants filled out questionnaires concerning their health, diet, habits, and other factors. Among the questions were two focused on determining how much green tea or coffee, if any, the participants consumed over the course of a week. The health of the participants was recorded for five years. During this time, 309 of the test subjects died from a variety of causes. <br> <br> Subjects who drank more than one cup of tea or coffee per day demonstrated lower odds of dying than those who had none. Those who consumed the most tea and coffee, more than four and two cups a day, respectively, enjoyed the most significant reductions in their risk of death. This level of consumption was associated with a 40 percent lower risk of <a href="https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/10/201020190129.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">death</a>. </p><p>Most interestingly, the effects of drinking tea and coffee appear to combine to reduce risk even further. Those who reported drinking two or three cups of tea a day and two or more cups of coffee were 51 percent less likely to die during the study, while those who drank a whopping four or more cups of tea and two or more cups of coffee had a 63 percent lower risk of <a href="https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/diabetes-coffee-and-green-tea-might-reduce-death-risk" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">death</a>. </p>
So, should I start swimming in a vat of coffee and green tea?<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/LY0E-JQxeoY" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p> Not quite. </p><p> The primary takeaway from this study is that Japanese adults with type 2 diabetes who drink a lot of green tea and/or coffee die less often than similar people who do not. If this effect is caused by something in the drink, lifestyle choices people who drink that much tea all make, or something else remains unknown. The finding must be considered an association at this point. <br> <br> The eye-popping reductions in mortality rates are compared to the risk of death of others in the study. The people who died reported drinking less tea and coffee than those who lived. Unless you have several demographic and conditional similarities to the subjects of this study, you probably won't suddenly be at a two-thirds lower risk of death than your peers because you drink green tea. </p><p> Like all studies that depend on self-reporting, it is also possible that people misstated how much they consumed any one item. The study also did not look into other factors like socioeconomic status or education level, also known to impact death rates and potentially linked to coffee and tea consumption. </p><p> However, it is yet another study in the pile that suggests that <a href="https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/top-13-evidence-based-health-benefits-of-coffee" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">coffee</a> and <a href="https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/top-10-evidence-based-health-benefits-of-green-tea" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">green tea</a> are good for you. That much is increasingly <a href="https://www.health.harvard.edu/press_releases/health-benefits-linked-to-drinking-tea" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">agreed</a><a href="https://www.rush.edu/health-wellness/discover-health/health-benefits-coffee" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"> upon</a>. This study also suggests the benefits are additive, which is a new development.</p><p><br> So, while it isn't time to start the IV drip of green tea, a cup or two probably won't <a href="https://www.webmd.com/diabetes/news/20201022/coffee-green-tea-might-extend-life-for-folks-with-type-2-diabetes" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">hurt</a>. </p>
Logic puzzles can teach reasoning in a fun way that doesn't feel like work.
- Logician Raymond Smullyan devised tons of logic puzzles, but one was declared by another philosopher to be the hardest of all time.
- The problem, also known as the Three Gods Problem, is solvable, even if it doesn't seem to be.
- It depends on using complex questions to assure that any answer given is useful.
The Three Gods Problem<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/UyOGZk7WbIk" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p> One of the more popular wordings of the problem, which MIT logic professor George Boolos <a href="https://www.readersdigest.ca/culture/hardest-logic-puzzle-ever/" target="_blank">said</a> was the hardest ever, is:<br> <br> "Three gods A, B, and C are called, in no particular order, True, False, and Random. True always speaks truly, False always speaks falsely, but whether Random speaks truly or falsely is a completely random matter. Your task is to determine the identities of A, B, and C by asking three yes-no questions; each question must be put to exactly one god. The gods understand English, but will answer all questions in their own language, in which the words for <em>yes</em> and <em>no</em> are <em>da</em> and <em>ja</em>, in some order. You do not know which word means which."<br> <br> Boolos adds that you are allowed to ask a particular god more than one question and that Random switches between answering as if they are a truth-teller or a liar, not merely between answering "da" and "ja." <br> <br> Give yourself a minute to ponder this; we'll look at a few answers below. Ready? Okay. <strong><br> <br></strong>George Boolos' <a href="https://www.pdcnet.org/8525737F00588A37/file/31B21D0580E8B125852577CA0060ABC9/$FILE/harvardreview_1996_0006_0001_0060_0063.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">solution</a> focuses on finding either True or False through complex questions. </p><p> In logic, there is a commonly used function often written as "iff," which means "if, and only if." It would be used to say something like "The sky is blue if and only if Des Moines is in Iowa." It is a powerful tool, as it gives a true statement only when both of its components are true or both are false. If one is true and the other is false, you have a false statement. </p><p> So, if you make a statement such as "the moon is made of Gorgonzola if, and only if, Rome is in Russia," then you have made a true statement, as both parts of it are false. The statement "The moon has no air if, and only if, Rome is in Italy," is also true, as both parts of it are true. However, "The moon is made of Gorgonzola if, and only if, Albany is the capitol of New York," is false, because one of the parts of that statement is true, and the other part is not (The fact that these items don't rely on each other is immaterial for now).</p><p> In this puzzle, iff can be used here to control for the unknown value of "da" and "ja." As the answers we get can be compared with what we know they would be if the parts of our question are all true, all false, or if they differ. </p><p> Boolos would have us begin by asking god A, "Does "da" mean yes if and only if you are True if and only if B is Random?" No matter what A says, the answer you get is extremely useful. As he explains: <br> </p><p> "If A is True or False and you get the answer da, then as we have seen, B is Random, and therefore C is either True or False; but if A is True or False and you get the answer ja, then B is not Random, therefore B is either True or False… if A is Random and you get the answer da, C is not Random (neither is B, but that's irrelevant), and therefore C is either True or False; and if A is Random...and you get the answer ja, B is not random (neither is C, irrelevantly), and therefore B is either True or False."<br> <br> No matter which god A is, an answer of "da" assures that C isn't Random, and a response of "ja" means the same for B. </p><p> From here, it is a simple matter of asking whichever one you know isn't Random questions to determine if they are telling the truth, and then one on who the last god is. Boolos suggests starting with "Does da mean yes if, and only if, Rome is in Italy?" Since one part of this is accurate, we know that True will say "da," and False will say "ja," if faced with this question. </p><p> After that, you can ask the same god something like, "Does da mean yes if, and only if, A is Random?" and know exactly who is who by how they answer and the process of elimination. </p><p> If you're confused about how this works, try going over it again slowly. Remember that the essential parts are knowing what the answer will be if two positives or two negatives always come out as a positive and that two of the gods can be relied on to act consistently. </p><p> Smullyan wrote several books with other logic puzzles in them. If you liked this one and would like to learn more about the philosophical issues they investigate, or perhaps if you'd like to try a few that are a little easier to solve, you should consider reading them. A few of his puzzles can be found with explanations in this <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/02/11/obituaries/smullyan-logic-puzzles.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">interactive</a>. </p>
But most city dwellers weren't seeing the science — they were seeing something out of Blade Runner.
On Sept. 9, many West Coast residents looked out their windows and witnessed a post-apocalyptic landscape: silhouetted cars, buildings and people bathed in an overpowering orange light that looked like a jacked-up sunset.