Research Article: Caring or daring? Exploring the impact of facial masculinity/femininity and gender category information on first impressions

Date Published: October 12, 2017

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Mirella Walker, Michaela Wänke, Jasmin Cloutier.


In two studies we disentangled and systematically investigated the impact of subtle facial cues to masculinity/femininity and gender category information on first impressions. Participants judged the same unambiguously male and female target persons–either with masculine or feminine facial features slightly enhanced–regarding stereotypically masculine (i.e., competence) and feminine (i.e., warmth) personality traits. Results of both studies showed a strong effect of facial masculinity/femininity: Masculine-looking persons were seen as colder and more competent than feminine-looking persons. This effect of facial masculinity/femininity was not only found for typical (i.e., masculine-looking men and feminine-looking women) and atypical (i.e., masculine-looking women and feminine-looking men) category members; it was even found to be more pronounced for atypical than for typical category members. This finding reveals that comparing atypical members to the group prototype results in pronounced effects of facial masculinity/femininity. These contrast effects for atypical members predominate assimilation effects for typical members. Intriguingly, very subtle facial cues to masculinity/femininity strongly guide first impressions and may have more impact than the gender category.

Partial Text

When we see a person for the very first time, we instantly and spontaneously draw inferences from that person’s face. These inferences pertain to the person’s group memberships or social category (e.g., [1]) as well as to their personality (e.g., [2]). Both types of inferences share (at least) two important characteristics indicating that they are not independent from each other. Firstly, facial masculinity or femininity plays a crucial role both in categorizing a person as male or female [3–7] and in the ascription of personality [8]. A feminine-looking woman, for example, is not only more easily categorized as a woman [3,4], she is also more likely perceived as warm–a stereotypical female trait–than a masculine-looking woman [8]. Secondly, both inferences are related to processes of stereotyping. On the one hand, classifying a person as female activates consensual beliefs about the characteristics of women (e.g., women are warm [9]), which might then lead to the ascription of the personality traits perceived as stereotypic for the group to the group members (i.e., category-based gender stereotyping). Spontaneous, automatic personality inferences, on the other hand, are the result of overgeneralization effects, among which sex overgeneralization is a prominent one [10]. If the facial features of an individual resemble the facial features that are perceived as typical for a specific stereotyped group (e.g., women), the individual is likely perceived to possess the personality traits associated with the stereotyped group (e.g., warmth), irrespective of the gender of the individual (i.e., direct feature-trait associations [11]).

In Study 2, both gender category and facial appearance information was manipulated within participants. Participants either saw a masculine-looking man and a feminine-looking woman (typical condition) or a feminine-looking man and a masculine-looking woman (atypical condition). By manipulating gender of the stimulus person within participants, gender category information should become more salient here than in Study 1. The main reason for Study 2 was to investigate whether under these conditions category-based gender stereotyping would occur. Moreover, we used additional scales to measure competence and warmth to test whether results were robust across different measures.

Taken together, results from both studies presented here provide evidence in support of our three hypotheses: Masculine-looking persons are perceived as more competent and less warm than feminine-looking persons (Hypothesis 1, feature-trait associations). This effect of feature-trait associations was not only present for typical and atypical category exemplars (Hypothesis 2, feature-trait associations override category-based stereotyping), it was even more pronounced for atypical than for typical exemplars (Hypothesis 3, contrast effect for atypical exemplars).

The two studies presented here provide evidence that subtle gendered facial appearance information strongly impacts first impressions. In line with the inclusion/exclusion model of stereotyping, these effects are even stronger for atypical than for typical category members. This finding is especially intriguing because facial appearance has been shown to be quite an invalid cue for personality [54,55]. Because facial appearance is the first piece of information available in many situations and because first impressions strongly impact further processing and decision making, these invalid facial appearance cues can have a drastic impact in various applied contexts from personnel selection or political elections to criminal sentencing.




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