Let’s begin with a hard truth. People use stereotypes about the groups to which you belong (or appear to belong) to interpret everything you do and say. And most of the time, they don’t actually know they are doing it. In fact, they don’t even have to believe a stereotype to be affected by it.
It’s important to understand that this doesn’t mean that we are all just jerks. Stereotyping is essentially a form of categorization, something human brains have evolved to do swiftly and automatically. Categories like chair, smartphone, tree, and hamster for example are useful guidelines for knowing what kind of behavior to expect from a particular thing and how to interact with it.
Stereotypes are the beliefs we have about categories of people, and we categorize people in lots of different ways. There are the categories we talk about a lot because their stereotypes cause so much trouble (categories like black, woman, gay), and then there are the ones that seem less controversial, like hipster, soccer mom, Belieber. But there are also less obvious stereotypes that can be incredibly powerful, including stereotypes based on patterns of facial features.
Baby-faced people–those who have large eyes, thinner, higher eyebrows, large foreheads, and small chins on a rounded face–are perceived to be more innocent, and consequently more trustworthy, than mature-faced people.
I suppose this isn’t surprising, since baby-faced people remind us of babies, beings who are practically synonymous with innocence. The problem, obviously, is that while actual babies are less likely to do intentional harm, there’s nothing keeping baby-faced adults from doing so. And this stereotype dramatically affects the odds that they’ll be punished when they do.
Researchers from Brandeis University examining the results of more than 500 small-claims-court cases found that differences in baby-facedness had a huge impact on whether the defendant was found guilty. For claims of intentional harm (for example, a neighbor deliberately crashed his car into another’s fence after a heated argument), the most mature-faced defendants had a 92% chance of being found guilty, compared to only a 45% chance among the most baby-faced. But when it comes to negligent harm (like when a neighbor wasn’t looking and accidentally backed into the other’s fence), the baby-faced were more likely to be found guilty (85%) compared to the mature-faced (58%).
In other words, if someone with a delightfully baby-ish face like Jennifer Lawrence ran over your begonias, you’d be likely to think she was just distracted by a frolicking puppy or a happy song on the radio. But when Clint Eastwood runs over your begonias, you’re pretty sure he’s doing it on purpose.
We are very comfortable saying that baby-faced people are screw-ups, but uncomfortable thinking they are deliberately bad. On the other hand, a mature-faced person seems perfectly capable of malicious deeds, but seems less likely to be a bonehead. Being mature-faced gets you taken seriously, even if you aren’t fully trusted. It’s a trade-off.
Another way to describe this difference is that baby-facedness is a signal of being warm (but not particularly competent), and mature-facedness is a signal of being competent (but not particularly warm). Warmth and competence are the two primary dimensions of personality that we unconsciously home in on when we are getting to know another person. Your warmth is taken as evidence that you have good intentions toward the perceiver, and your competence is evidence that you can act on those intentions if you want.
Research by Princeton University professor of psychology Susan Fiske and her colleagues shows that warm-but-incompetent people are seen as trustworthy but benign, while competent-but-cold people tend to be distrusted or feared.
You should know that you don’t have to take all of this passively. If you have more of a baby face, you just need to tackle the stereotype head on and go the extra mile to convey your competence. You can do this with body language like making eye contact and sitting up straight. And you can of course also do it by making others explicitly aware of your abilities and expertise. Just be careful not to toot your own horn too much–bragging makes you look less competent, not more.
If on the other hand you have a more mature face, you will need to take pains to explicitly convey your warmth. Again, the right body language like smiling, nodding, and looking at someone when they are speaking can go a long way. It also helps to ask questions, to express empathy, and to share your flaws and foibles. Maybe if you knew Clint Eastwood sang in the shower, you wouldn’t be quite so sure he deliberately crushed your begonias.