Testing the Functional Basis of First Impressions: Dimensions for Children's Faces Are Not the Same as for Adults' Faces

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

33 Citations (Web of Science)
295 Downloads (Pure)


Despite warnings not to "judge a book by its cover," people rapidly form facial impressions. In Oosterhof and Todorov's (2008) two-dimensional model of facial impressions, trustworthiness, and dominance underlie impressions and primarily function to signal the potential threat of others. Here, we test a key assumption of these models, namely that these dimensions are functional, by evaluating whether the adult-face dimensions apply to young children's faces. Although it may be functional for adults to judge adult faces on dimensions that signal threat, adults associate different social goals with children, and these goals are likely to impact the impressions adults make of such faces. Thus, a functional approach would predict that the dimensions for children's faces are not threat focused. In Studies 1 and 2, we build a data-driven model of Caucasian adults' impressions of Caucasian children's faces, finding evidence for two dimensions. The first dimension, niceness, is similar (although not identical) to the adult dimension of trustworthiness. However, we find a second dimension, shyness, that is clearly dissociable from dominance (Study 3), and critically, is not focused on threat. We demonstrate that adults are sensitive to subtle facial manipulations of these dimensions (Studies 4 and 5) and that these impressions impact adults' behavioral expectations of children (Study 6). Finally, we show that niceness and shyness dimensions generalize to an independent sample of ambient images, demonstrating their robustness (Study 7). Our results suggest that social goals have the power to drive functional impressions and highlight the flexibility of our visual system when forming such inferences.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)900-924
JournalJournal of Personality and Social Psychology
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2019


Dive into the research topics of 'Testing the Functional Basis of First Impressions: Dimensions for Children's Faces Are Not the Same as for Adults' Faces'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this