Individual differences in trust evaluations are shaped mostly by environments, not genes

Clare A. M. Sutherland*, Nichola S. Burton, Jeremy B. Wilmer, Gabriella A. M. Blokland, Laura Germine, Romina Palermo, Jemma R. Collova, Gillian Rhodes

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


People evaluate a stranger's trustworthiness from their facial features in a fraction of a second, despite common advice "not to judge a book by its cover." Evaluations of trustworthiness have critical and widespread social impact, predicting financial lending, mate selection, and even criminal justice outcomes. Consequently, understanding how people perceive trustworthiness from faces has been a major focus of scientific inquiry, and detailed models explain how consensus impressions of trustworthiness are driven by facial attributes. However, facial impression models do not consider variation between observers. Here, we develop a sensitive test of trustworthiness evaluation and use it to document substantial, stable individual differences in trustworthiness impressions. Via a twin study, we show that these individual differences are largely shaped by variation in personal experience, rather than genes or shared environments. Finally, using multivariate twin modeling, we show that variation in trustworthiness evaluation is specific, dissociating from other key facial evaluations of dominance and attractiveness. Our finding that variation in facial trustworthiness evaluation is driven mostly by personal experience represents a rare example of a core social perceptual capacity being predominantly shaped by a person's unique environment. Notably, it stands in sharp contrast to variation in facial recognition ability, which is driven mostly by genes. Our study provides insights into the development of the social brain, offers a different perspective on disagreement in trust in wider society, and motivates new research into the origins and potential malleability of face evaluation, a critical aspect of human social cognition.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)10218-10224
Number of pages7
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number19
Publication statusPublished - 12 May 2020


  • trust
  • face evaluation
  • first impressions
  • behavioral genetics
  • classical twin design

Cite this