Iterated learning reveals stereotypes of facial trustworthiness that propagate in the absence of evidence

Cognition. 2023 Aug:237:105452. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2023.105452. Epub 2023 Apr 11.


When we look at someone's face, we rapidly and automatically form robust impressions of how trustworthy they appear. Yet while people's impressions of trustworthiness show a high degree of reliability and agreement with one another, evidence for the accuracy of these impressions is weak. How do such appearance-based biases survive in the face of weak evidence? We explored this question using an iterated learning paradigm, in which memories relating (perceived) facial and behavioral trustworthiness were passed through many generations of participants. Stimuli consisted of pairs of computer-generated people's faces and exact dollar amounts that those fictional people shared with partners in a trust game. Importantly, the faces were designed to vary considerably along a dimension of perceived facial trustworthiness. Each participant learned (and then reproduced from memory) some mapping between the faces and the dollar amounts shared (i.e., between perceived facial and behavioral trustworthiness). Much like in the game of 'telephone', their reproductions then became the training stimuli initially presented to the next participant, and so on for each transmission chain. Critically, the first participant in each chain observed some mapping between perceived facial and behavioral trustworthiness, including positive linear, negative linear, nonlinear, and completely random relationships. Strikingly, participants' reproductions of these relationships showed a pattern of convergence in which more trustworthy looks were associated with more trustworthy behavior - even when there was no relationship between looks and behavior at the start of the chain. These results demonstrate the power of facial stereotypes, and the ease with which they can be propagated to others, even in the absence of any reliable origin of these stereotypes.

Keywords: Face perception; Iterated learning; Social cognition.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Conditioning, Operant
  • Facial Expression*
  • Humans
  • Learning
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Trust*