April 19 (UPI) -- Children judge and adjust their behavior toward people based on the person's facial features, just like adults do.
Previous studies have detailed the way various facial features -- the tilt of a person's mouth or distance between a person's eyes, for example -- influence a person's perception and expectations of another person. These preconceived notions, formed in an instant, can affect how people behave toward the person.
Research suggests these subconscious prejudices can influence the hiring process, voting decisions or even jury deliberations. But until now, psychologists had only studied such prejudices in adults.
The latest study, published this week in the journal Developmental Psychology, suggests children as young as five also judge people based on facial features.
Researchers used the results of previous studies to design computer animated faces to look trustworthy or untrustworthy, dominant or submissive and competent or incompetent. When they showed the digital faces to children, the study participants were more likely to rate the trustworthy, dominant and competent faces as "nice," and the others as "mean."
In follow up tests, researchers determined children made similarly prejudiced judgements about less stereotyped faces -- faces with more subtle features. Researchers also determined the children expected the stereotyped faces to do stereotypical things. The dominant face was more likely to be the face of someone who "picks up heavy things," according to the children.
"This shows that children from as early as kindergarten use facial appearance to determine meaningful judgments and expectations of others' behavior," Tessa E.S. Charlesworth, researcher at Harvard University, said in a news release.
When asked to choose to give a treat to one of two people, study participants were more likely to give a cookie to the "nice" looking faces.
"By age five, children were consistently above chance in giving their gifts to the trustworthy- or submissive-looking faces," said Charlesworth.
The latest findings dispel the myth that children are without prejudice.
"This research shows that perceptions of people, however inaccurate those judgments may be, emerge early in humans," said Harvard researcher Mahzarin R. Banaji. "What this study uniquely shows is that these inaccuracies don't just sit around in a child's head, they manifest in the child's behavior toward others who are viewed as good or bad based on features of the face that are irrelevant to decisions about character and personality."