At a very young age, many children are taught not to judge a book by its cover. But a team of researchers from Zhejiang Sci-Tech and Wenzhou Medical universities in China think that such judging may be an inherent human trait. So they set out to study a group of children to analyze whether people develop first impressions based solely on appearance. Their findings, published in the journal Frontiers of Psychology, reveal that children may not be so quick to trust a person who isn’t attractive.

For the study, the researchers recruited 138 child participants who were either 8, 10, or 12 years old, along with a second group of adults for comparison. Using a face generation software program called FaceGen, they produced 200 images of male faces with neutral expressions and asked participants to rate how trustworthy and how attractive they thought each person was. Next, researchers repeated the same exercise a month later with the same set of faces in order to determine how consistent participants were in their ratings.

Researchers found a direct link between the faces that participants ranked more trustworthy and those they ranked more attractive. The older the children got, the more likely they were to trust a face that was more attractive and the more their assessments from the first and second trials matched. This indicates that the older people get, the more they come to agree with their peers about what makes a face look trustworthy.

Trusting Beauty Trusting beautiful people more often than unattractive people may be an instinct. Photo courtesy of Pixabay, public domain

The results led the researchers to believe that children, even at 8 years old, interpret attractiveness as a measure of trust and strengthen this bias as they age. Though adults are old enough to know that beauty is not a defining quality of trust, they still tend to believe one equals the other.

To suppose that beauty reflects positive character traits is a fallacy many people fall victim to, and it may go beyond trustworthiness and give physically attractive people social advantages. According to Stanford University’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research, unattractive individuals are less likely to get hired and be promoted, and they’re less likely to be considered kind and honest. This could contribute to personal difficulties such as eating disorders and depression, and drive the popularity of cosmetic surgery as a way to fulfill society’s beauty standards.

Source: Luo X, Ma F, and Xu F. Children’s Facial Trustworthiness Judgments: Agreement and Relationship with Facial Attractiveness. Frontiers in Psychology . 2016.