Moral character in person and group perception

In forming an impression of an individual or a group, we may have a variety of information about their traits and behaviors. Extensive research has shown that most of this information can be characterized in terms of two global dimensions: warmth and competence. Warmth pertains to benevolence in social relations and involves qualities such as friendliness, kindness, cooperativeness, and trustworthiness. In contrast, competence refers to the power to perform and influence others and involves qualities such as efficiency, intelligence, strength, and capability.

Our research suggests that warmth encompasses both sociability (e.g., friendliness and likeability) and morality (e.g., honesty and trustworthiness) characteristics and that morality tends to be far more important than sociability (and competence) in determining the impressions we form of other individuals and groups. Our research further suggests that morality has such a large effect on impressions because another party’s morality is essential to establishing whether they represent an opportunity or a threat.

Face perception

Our impressions of others are often based on limited information that is spontaneously and automatically extracted from their appearance—in particular, their faces. Our research examines how we use facial cues to categorize people into social groups, perceive their emotions, and infer their personality traits. In one line of work, we have investigated the factors that promote (vs. disrupt) the processing of moral characteristics from faces (e.g., trustworthiness). The findings consistently show that the scene in which a face is encountered alters trustworthiness evaluation. Specifically, untrustworthy faces were more easily processed when surrounded by threatening scene contexts. Taken together, our findings speak to the malleable nature of trustworthiness such that its perception is readily pushed around by scene context.

In a second line of research, we have examined the social implications of variations in a subtle eye signal (i.e., pupil size). Our data reveal that individuals with large pupil sizes are trusted and perceived positively. Thus, people are more willing to interact when partners have large rather than small pupils. In a third line of work, we have investigated the influence of familiarity and anti-gay bias in the categorization of sexual orientation from faces. Our data show that individuals reporting higher levels of anti-gay bias appear to be less accurate judges of sexual orientation.

​Social categorization, stereotyping, and prejudice

A good deal of work has documented the consequences of placing another person in a social category. Once a person is categorized, associated stereotypes and evaluative biases often come into play.

Our research examines stereotype content and its predictors, as well as how stereotypes and prejudice affect social behavior. ​In one line of work, we have investigated the subtle effects of sexual stereotypes on the clinical evaluations of gay patients. In a second line of work, we have investigated the effects of a generalized sense of threat on sexual prejudice and racial bias.