ISSN 0439-755X
CN 11-1911/B

Acta Psychologica Sinica ›› 2023, Vol. 55 ›› Issue (9): 1518-1528.doi: 10.3724/SP.J.1041.2023.01518

• Reports of Empirical Studies • Previous Articles     Next Articles

Can Cinderella become Snow White? The influence of perceived trustworthiness on the mental representation of faces

LI Qinggong1, FANG Wei2,3, HU Chao4, SHI Dejun5, HU Xiaoqing6, FU Genyue7, WANG Qiandong8()   

  1. 1Zhejiang Philosophy and Social Science Laboratory for the Mental Health and Crisis Intervention of Children and Adolescents, College of Psychology, Zhejiang Normal University, Jinhua 321004, China
    2Department of Psychology, Zhejiang Sci-Tech University, Hangzhou 310018, China
    3Department of Psychology, Neuroscience & Behaviour, McMaster University, Hamilton L8S 4L8, Canada
    4Department of Medical Humanities, School of Humanities, Southeast University, Nanjing 211189, China
    5School of Psychological and Cognitive Sciences, Peking University, Beijing 100871, China
    6The State Key Laboratory of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, Department of Psychology, The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong 999077, China
    7Zhejiang Philosophy and Social Science Laboratory for Research in Early Development and Childcare, Zhejiang Key Laboratory for Research in Assessment of Cognitive Impairments, Department of Psychology, Hangzhou Normal University, Hangzhou 311121, China
    8Beijing Key Laboratory of Applied Experimental Psychology, National Demonstration Center for Experimental Psychology Education, Faculty of Psychology, Beijing Normal University, Beijing 100875, China
  • Published:2023-09-25 Online:2023-06-09
  • Contact: WANG Qiandong


People often infer others’ social traits, such as trustworthiness, from a glance at their face. Whereas previous studies have focused on how different facial cues influence social perception, the present study examined whether perception of a person’s trustworthiness could influence mental representations of that person’s face, as well as the mechanisms underlying this process.

Two experiments were conducted. Experiment 1 was designed to test whether a target person described as trustworthy would be represented in the perceiver’s mind as more attractive than the same person described as untrustworthy. One hundred and fifty-five participants were recruited and randomly assigned into four conditions (Female trustworthy: N = 37, 20 females, Mean age = 19.86 years, SD = 1.60 years; Female untrustworthy: N = 38, 21 females, Mean age = 20.42 years, SD = 1.95 years; Male trustworthy: N = 40, 20 females, Mean age =20.38 years, SD = 1.35 years; Male untrustworthy: N = 40, 20 females, Mean age = 19.68 years, SD = 1.82 years). Participants were instructed to form an impression about a target person’s trustworthiness by viewing the person’s face paired with a description labeling them as trustworthy or untrustworthy. The reverse correlation image classification (RCIC) technique was then used to visualize the participants’ mental representations of the target person’s face (Figure 1). A separate group of participants (N = 50, 27 females, Mean age = 21.32 years, SD = 2.51 years) were recruited to evaluate the attractiveness and other traits (e.g., friendly, intelligent, and positive) of the generated mental representation images. Experiment 2 aimed to determine a possible underlying mechanism by exploring whether the mental representations of the trustworthy (or untrustworthy) target persons’ faces in Experiment 1 shared more similarities with those of the trustworthy (or untrustworthy) faces at a group level (i.e., prototypes of trustworthy or untrustworthy faces). To achieve this goal, we recruited participants (N = 20, 10 females, Mean age = 19.95 years, SD = 1.10 years) to complete an alternate RCIC task in which they selected which of two faces appeared more trustworthy, producing mental representation images for trustworthy and untrustworthy faces at a group level (Figure 2). The features of these prototypical trustworthy and untrustworthy faces were then compared with those of the target person from Experiment 1.

In Experiment 1, mental representations of a face described as trustworthy were found to be more attractive than those of the same face described as untrustworthy. Furthermore, raters attributed additional desirable traits, such as friendly, intelligent, and positive, to the representation of the trustworthy person (Table 1). In Experiment 2, we found that the mental representation of the face labeled as trustworthy in Experiment 1 shared more similarities with the prototypical trustworthy face produced in Experiment 2 than with the prototypical untrustworthy face (Table 2).

In sum, our findings suggest that the perception of a person’s trustworthiness can influence mental representations of that person’s face. When people perceive an individual as trustworthy (or untrustworthy), they may superimpose the corresponding schema features in their minds onto the physical characteristics of the perceived individual’s face, leading to a reconfiguration of the face representation. Our study underscores the importance of top-down factors in shaping face representations.

Key words: person perception, reverse correlation image classification technique, mental representation, attractiveness, trustworthiness