Why don't we like others

Sympathy: Why do we like someone?

A man's face can be seen on the screen. He looks straight into the camera; his skull against the black background is bald. One click of the mouse and his features begin to change: his head gets narrower, his skin browner, his eyes bigger. His double chin approach is beginning to fade; the corners of his mouth rise. After four and a half seconds, the metamorphosis is complete. The face that now smiles at the viewer from the display is extremely sympathetic: a nice guy with whom you would like to have a beer with.

But now the face changes again; first back to the original image, then beyond: the skull widens, the double chin grows, the small eyes with their increasingly blurred pupils move closer together. Gradually, the face of a person emerges that very few would like straight away.

This article is contained in Spectrum Psychology, 3/2021 (May / June)

We sympathize with some people directly; we don't want to have more to do with others than is absolutely necessary. If you believe the findings of the psychologist Alexander Todorov, one of the keys to this lies in their appearance. Todorov heads the Social Perception Lab at Princeton University; the metamorphosis described above can also be seen there. The working group has been researching for two decades how we perceive the faces of our fellow human beings and what effect they have on us. Their findings have been incorporated into a computer model that creates realistic portraits with a click of the mouse.

The real highlight of the software is demonstrated by nine short videos on the laboratory website: It can change the appearance of virtual people in a targeted manner. And with it the way in which an average viewer assesses the depicted - for example as introverted or extroverted, trustworthy or dishonest, competent or incapable. So sympathy is first and foremost a question of outward appearances. Not exactly surprising. In the course of evolution, it has proven to be beneficial to quickly get an idea of ‚Äč‚Äčother people: Is the stranger a threat? Can i trust him

Physiognomy as a signal generator

Clothing, body language, facial expressions - these are the information that we can use to form an initial opinion from a distance. At least with faces, this happens pretty quickly, as Todorov and his colleague Janine Willis demonstrated in an experiment in 2006. It was enough for students to see portrait photos for a tenth of a second in order to find the people depicted likeable or unsympathetic. You only needed a blink of an eye to make a first impression.

Test subjects who were instead allowed to look at the same images for a second came to a very similar assessment. Having more time did not lead to a systematically different judgment. It also showed that most people like the same faces. Presumably, preferences have become deeply anchored in genes during evolution. One of these concerns the width of a face: the narrower, the more comfortable a person appears. Studies suggest that people with a skull that is wide (relative to its height) are actually more aggressive and dominant on average. The reason for this is controversial.