Social Perception in Group Scenes: Social context modulates perceptions of facial attractiveness

Author: Daniel Carragher

Carragher, Daniel, 2018 Social Perception in Group Scenes: Social context modulates perceptions of facial attractiveness, Flinders University, College of Education, Psychology and Social Work

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Despite the cautionary reminder to never “judge a book by its cover”, we regularly judge others based upon their facial appearance. Far from meaning that we are all terribly judgmental, these trait impressions occur automatically. Even though they are often not accurate, the trait judgments that we make about others can influence our own decision making. The candidate with the more “competent” face wins approximately 70% of national elections, and criminals with “untrustworthy” faces receive longer prison sentences for the same crimes than those with “trustworthy” faces.

Trait impressions have been the focus of research in the field of social perception since the earliest days of experimental psychology. While these studies have undoubtedly improved our understanding of the way that trait judgments are made from faces, the vast majority of these studies have been conducted by presenting observers with a single face at a time. However, we often meet people for the first time when they are surrounded by others, perhaps at a café or a bar. Consequently, very little is known about the way we make trait impressions about an individual face that is seen among a group of other faces. Within this thesis, I aimed to improve our understanding of the way that the facial attractiveness and trustworthiness of an individual is evaluated when they are seen among a group of other faces, compared to when they are seen alone.

In the introduction to this thesis, I discuss the factors that influence the trustworthiness judgments that are made from the face, as well as the characteristics of faces that are perceived to be attractive. Then, I describe the way that the visual system processes complex visual scenes, such as a group of faces, using a process called ensemble coding. Bringing together these lines of research, I discuss “the cheerleader effect”, a phenomenon that is said to occur when the same face is perceived to be more attractive in a group compared to alone.

The research in this thesis significantly advances our understanding of the cheerleader effect. My findings show that all individuals are perceived to be approximately 1.5-2% more attractive in a group than they are alone, regardless of how attractive they are, or how attractive the other group members are. I also show that the cheerleader effect does not extend to judgments of trustworthiness. Crucially, my findings are also inconsistent with the hierarchical encoding mechanism that was initially proposed to cause the cheerleader effect, which was related to the way that the visual system uses ensemble coding to summarise groups of faces. Based on the results contained within this thesis, I offer an alternative explanation for the cheerleader effect, which suggests that the effect might be related to the socially desirable characteristics that are attributed to individuals in groups. In conclusion, my findings demonstrate that social context reliably influences perceptions of facial attractiveness, and suggests that the field of social perception must be expanded to consider the influence of social context on the trait impressions that are made from the face.

Keywords: Social Perception; First Impressions; Ensemble Coding; Hierarchical Encoding; The Cheerleader Effect; Attractiveness; Trustworthiness

Subject: Psychology thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2018
School: College of Education, Psychology and Social Work
Supervisor: Mike Nicholls