Despite the injunction "Don't judge a book by its cover," considerable research demonstrates that people have a strong tendency to use facial appearance when forming first impressions of others' psychological traits, and that these impressions show considerable consensus across perceivers.

Current research in the Zebrowitz Face Perception Lab takes a functional approach to social perception, and it is assumed that social perceptions based on appearance either should be accurate or should reflect perceptual biases that serve some general adaptive function. A working hypothesis is that the evolutionary and social importance of detecting attributes like emotion, age, identity, or genetic fitness has created a strong tendency to respond to the facial qualities that reveal these attributes, and this tendency is overgeneralized to people whose faces merely resemble a particular emotion, age, identity, or level of fitness.

Our research addresses four questions concerning this phenomenon:

  1. What are the facial qualities that influence trait impressions?
  2. Why do perceivers respond as they do to these particular facial qualities?
  3. What are the social and psychological consequences of judging others by their appearance?
  4. How do these responses change across the life span?

We are studying connectionist modeling's ability to predict trait impressions of faces, based on an artificial neural network’s tendency to confuse those faces with others that actually do have the traits.

We are using fMRI to identify the brain mechanisms involved in perceiving traits in faces, in collaboration with Nouchine Hadjikhani, M.D., Ph.D.

We are looking at comparing the trait impressions of younger and older adults.

Finally, we are investigating the stigmatizing effects of facial masking in Parkinson’s disease, in collaboration with Linda Tickle-Degnan and others.