The Advantages of Looking "Trustworthy"

We’ve blogged before about the many advantages of being beautiful.  New research indicates that looking “trustworthy” carries some benefits as well:

In a paper recently published in the PLoS One journal, researchers from Warwick Business School, the University College London and Dartmouth College, USA, carried out a series of experiments to see if people made decisions to trust others based on their faces.

They found people are more likely to invest money in someone whose face is generally perceived as trustworthy, even when they are given negative information about this person’s reputation.

“Trustworthiness is one of the most important traits for social and economic interactions and our study examines whether people take potentially costly actions in line with their face-based trustworthiness judgments,” said Dr. Chris Olivola, one of the study’s authors. “It seems we are still willing to go with our own instincts about whether we think someone looks like we can trust them.”

Now the only trick is for people who aren’t in fact trustworthy at all to appear as if they are. Or, as it’s been said before: Once you can fake sincerity, you’ve got it made.

(HT: Naked Capitalism)

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This reminds me of an award-winning science fair project I saw in the mid-1980s: the girl went to the shopping mall, stood next to a bank of pay phones, and asked people if she could have a quarter to make a phone call. She recorded how many people agreed to give her the quarter and what she was wearing at the time. The punk outfit had a much lower positive rate than the skirt suit.

It amazes me how many kids tell you that their clothes are a matter of self-expression ("Don't tell me what to wear!), and then get upset because people believe what the message that they are voluntarily "saying" through their clothes ("How could you judge me based on my clothes!").


What does a trustworthy face look like? Examples please?


Maybe they just didn't trust the faces of the people who gave them the info?


I wonder how they determined that modifying certain features made a face more or less trustworthy. I certainly wouldn't have the foggiest idea how to distinguish a trustworthy face from an untrustworthy one.

On the other hand, there are all sorts of non-facial cues that might use to determine general trustworthiness (some of which I admit are personal prejudices): shaved heads, tattoos, and suits all will get you a downgrade on my personal trust scale, while exercise gear or a bit of dog hair gets you a plus.


There are advantages to looking nothing like trustworthy and helpful, too.

Like it or not, people tend to judge people from appearances on first impressions.

I'm a computer tech at a small college. I'm 280lbs, have a mini ZZ Top style beard, and long hair. People are typically intimidated by my appearance.

So when I'm friendly, helpful, and down to earth, they remember that with a stronger association with the good things than if I looked friendly, helpful, and down to earth. It's the people that seem more straight-laced and judgmental that are the most appreciative of my help.

Shattering someone's misconception (in a pleasant way) can be far more powerful, in my experience.

Bu$y B

Helps explain the Nixon/Kennedy debate: those that watched the debate on TV found Nixon untrustworthy while those that listened on the radio felt that he (Nixon) won the debate. We know which group turned out to be correct.


Do we? After all, Kennedy died not that long after those debates, so we have no information (other than the various tabloid "revelations" about affairs, etc) on whether he would ultimately have been more or less trustworthy than Nixon.

Bu$y B

@James - JFK died over 3 years after said debate, but your point its taken; after all, how trustworthy is ANY politician? My point was mainly that seeing, as well as hearing, a person is a much better gauge of trustworthiness.


I got a ticket for a sold out Phish concert based on my appearance. The guy with an extra ticket said I looked like had the cash to buy the ticket.

Doug Browne

What is "trustworthy" depends on context.

I usually get through airport security faster post-9/11 then I did before.

Before 9/11 I did a lot of air travel as a computer consultant. I am male, Anglo, and 6'1", with, at the time, a ponytail halfway down my back, clothing that did not fit the weather patterns for the city where I was, and a bag of electronic stuff that the security screeners did not understand. I was selected for "random" extra screening every time.

Now, I have short hair, but the fact that I am Anglo (and gray-haired) trumps that -- I'm now "apparently trustworthy."