Facial Looks and Acceptability of Social Exclusion Probed in Recent Study

Facial Looks

It is hardly revolutionary to say that people judge others based on appearances and that someone with an unappealing facial look can end up being the target of social exclusion. In a series of studies, researchers from the University of Basel took a slightly different approach to the topic. Instead of looking at how facial cues or facial expressions affected a person’s likeliness to be excluded from social groups, they tried to evaluate how the appearance of the excluded affected how just or unjust the exclusion was perceived to be by uninvolved observers.

The three studies were based on showing pictures of a male face to 480 participants. The images had undergone facial manipulation editing to make them appear warm, cold, competent, or incompetent, based on established perceptions. In the first study, participants were shown an image for two seconds before being required to say how acceptable it would be for a group to exclude them. In the second study, the image of the ostracizers were shown and manipulated along the same four points. The third study attempted to probe the feelings underlining the participants’ decisions.

Not entirely surprising, the first study found that the cold and incompetent pictures were seen as the most acceptable to exclude. Possibly more surprising was that the “warm and competent” image was not seen as the least acceptable for exclusion, but the warm and incompetent-looking person was. The researchers theorized that this might be due to how a warm, but incompetent-looking person might seem to be in greater need of being protected.

When the second study was conducted, it was found that the typical ostracizer is seen as being cold and incompetent-looking. Lastly, the third study suggested that the moral judgment on whether exclusion was acceptable was rooted in a person’s feelings of disgust. Unfortunately, this is phrased somewhat awkwardly in the study’s abstract and the full paper requires payment, so it is unclear whether this means the disgust was being felt towards the person being excluded or to how disgusting someone considered the excluder or the act of exclusion itself.

Social harmony, or lack thereof, drives many different types of interactions at work, school, and among friends. How bystanders perceive social exclusion based on facial looks may affect moral judgments when observing exclusion or bullying, which in turn can influence the kind of support the victim can receive from those around them.

“Fair or Unfair? Facial Cues Influence how Social Exclusion Is Judged,” University of Basel web site, August 29, 2016; https://www.unibas.ch/en/News-Events/News/Uni-Research/Fair-or-Unfair–Facial-Cues-Influence-how-Social-Exclusion-Is-Judged-.html, last accessed August 30, 2016.

Rudert, S., et al., “Faced with exclusion: Perceived facial warmth and competence influence moral judgments of social exclusion,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2016; http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2016.06.005.