Testing the functional basis of first impressions: Dimensions for children’s faces are not the same as for adults’ faces

Jemma R Collova (Corresponding Author), Clare Sutherland, Gillian Rhodes

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

38 Citations (Scopus)
12 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. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2019 APA, all rights reserved)

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)900-924
Number of pages25
JournalJournal of Personality and Social Psychology
Issue number5
Early online date6 Jun 2019
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2019


  • Face perception
  • First impressions
  • Impression formation
  • Person perception
  • Social cognition
  • social cognition
  • person perception
  • impression formation
  • face perception
  • first impressions
  • LIFE


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