Every day, corporate-compliance and ethics officers and agency Inspectors General are faced with the task of identifying and acting on potentially unethical or corrupt activity in their organizations, often by inference from financial or statistical data. But would it be possible to detect indications of whether a particular person is corrupt just by looking at them? A paper recently published in Psychological Science, “Inferring Whether Officials Are Corruptible From Looking at Their Faces,” provides some evidence of that possibility.
The paper’s authors, Chujun Lin, Ralph Adolphs, and R. Michael Alvarez (respectively a graduate student and professors at the California Institute of Technology), first noted that
[t]he possibility that corruptibility inferences from faces might be associated with real-world measures of corruption is raised by three areas of previous research. First, theories of self-fulfilling prophecy argue that the impressions and expectations a face creates (e.g., how corruptible an official looks) influence how other people interact with the face bearer (e.g., how likely others would be to bribe the official) and that those recurrent interactions in turn shape the face bearer’s behavior so as to confirm other people’s impressions and expectations . . . . Second, analyses of sentencing decisions show that evaluations of guilty and recommendations of punishment are influenced by the defendant’s facial appearance . . . . These findings suggest that officials who look more corruptible might be more likely to be accused, prosecuted, and convicted. Third, some studies have argued that the face contains a kernel of truth about a person’s nature – such as personality and criminal inclinations . . . – even though the diagnostic validity and the causal mechanisms remain obscure.
Given that prior research, the authors hypothesized “that elected officials’ corruption records would be associated with traits, such as corruptibility, inferred from their facial appearances.”
To test their hypothesis, the authors conducted a total of four studies. The first three studies used various arrays of photographs of Caucasian males who had held federal, state, or local offices in the United States; half of the officials in each study had clean records, while the other half had been convicted of political corruption-related offense. Participants in those studies were told only “that they would view a series of politician photos and that they should judge how corruptible, dishonest, selfish, trustworthy, and generous these politicians looked to them.” They then completed five blocks of experiments, in which each block corresponded to judging one trait for all faces, and “were instructed to make their decisions as quickly and precisely as possible.” The fourth study explored whether officials with wider faces were judged more negatively on corruptibility-related traits than officials with clean records.
In brief, the authors’ main conclusions included the following:
- In Studies 1-3, they found evidence “supporting the hypothesis that trait-specific inferences, such as corruptibility, made from photographs of officials’ faces are associated with real-world measures of political corruption and violation. This association was replicated across officials at different levels of government.”
- In Study 4, they found “that an official was perceived as more corruptible when his face was manipulated [in photographs] to be slightly wider and less corruptible when his face was manipulated to be slightly slimmer, even though participants did not detect such manipulation of the facial identity.”
They also speculated that “people who look corruptible might be more likely to be approached by others with the intent to corrupt them, which in turn results in the mutual behaviors required for corruption to occur . . . , but cautioned that there were important limitations to the generalizability of their study.
Note: The immediate value of this study to day-to-day corporate-compliance work is, and should be, limited; for example, compliance officers are better off conducting robust monitoring of corporate data than scrutinizing employee photos to determine whether someone “looks corrupt.” At the same time, it indicates additional and intriguing paths for future cognitive- and social-psychology research into corruption and the traits of those who engage in corrupt acts. The rigorous design and reproducibility of this study should help to encourage other researchers to explore those paths.