The Series Philosopher

Philosophising about the 'S'-word: Watch… and learn

S01E08: Do we trust people based on how they look?

BROOKLYN NINE-NINE: 1x08 Old School -

BROOKLYN NINE-NINE: 1×08 Old School – The tough, cold and mysterious detective Rosa Diaz (Stephanie Beatriz) has to testify in an aggravated assault case in front of a jury. Her co-workers Detective Sergeant Terence “Terry” Jeffords (Terry Crews, on the left) and Detective Charles Boyle (Joe Lo Truglio) are there to help her work on her image.


Remember the cartoons you watched when you were a kid, how you could tell who the villain was from the moment you laid your eyes on him? His voice, his face, his clothes, his smile… Only the good guy would commit the error of trusting him, but you? Never. There is something about people that makes you trust them or not: the person with whom your brother or your daughter falls in love, your future employee during the job interview, the general contractor to whom you give your money to fix your roof, your first babysitter… As soon as you see them, you have almost made your decision: “Mmmm… I don’t like him”. And sometimes, they just seem so nice (like the old witch in ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarves’ and her smooth voice, her too perfect apples) that you get even more suspicious!

So what is it? Do you judge a book by its cover?

In the eighth episode of the first season of Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Fox), Boyle and Terry help Diaz look more friendly to make the jury like her and believe her statement. Diaz normally never smiles, and in court, she already threatened the registrar to crush her phalanges into powder if she kept typing her words.

BOYLE (Joe Lo Truglio, Community): All you need is for a jury to like you. If they like you, they’ll trust you.

DIAZ (Stephanie Beatriz, Modern Family): Fine. How do I get these morons to like me? [Awkward silence] Don’t call them morons.

TERRY (Terry Crews, The Newsroom): Good instinct!

BOYLE: Okay. Sit up straight, all right? Be aware of your hands, okay? And don’t be afraid to smile. And if you need to buy time, you can always just say, “to be perfectly candid…”

DIAZ: “To be perfectly candid…” I like that.

TERRY: And always make good eye contact.

BOYLE: But don’t stare at people.

TERRY: Yeah. You gotta blink.

BOYLE: But don’t blink too much.

TERRY: Or too fast.

BOYLE: I think the bigger worry is slow blinks.

TERRY: Don’t blink too fast or too slow or too much or too little.

DIAZ: I know how to blink!


Over the last twenty years, researchers in economics have analyzed the effects of beauty and examined the mechanisms by which people decide whether to trust strangers. It began with the seminal work of Hamermesh and Biddle (1994) on the Canadian and US labor market. The results were that attractive people were viewed as more trustworthy and therefore would earn more money than less attractive people. The economists call it “beauty premium“. However, attractiveness does not guarantee higher earnings: when the attractive trusters do not live up to the expectations the trustees have of them, their punishment is proportionally as big as the trustees’ disappointment: the scientists call it “beauty penalty”. In the New Testament, Saint Thomas wanted to see before believing. What about us? Don’t we need to see before trusting?

Looks are the first information that we get  from a person. Before we know if they are kind and respectful, what they drink at breakfast, if they are pathological liars, whether they’d rather be buried or cremated, we know how they look and we draw our first conclusions from that. I remember the first time I heard about Dexter. I was waiting for the commuter train and there was this advertising poster on the opposite platform, featuring the portrait of a nice and good-looking young man with a shy smile and the claim: “The show where the good guy is the bad guy” (my respects to the creative team of BETC Euro RSCG in Paris). I immediately wanted to see the show because I could not imagine how such a nice-looking man could be a bad guy. Dexter was a serial killer, and no one could ever suspect him. He could ring at his next victim’s door and manage to be welcomed inside simply by being a Caucasian good-looking friendly young man. People would trust that stranger, they would let him in, bond with him. Little did they know that they would end up cut into pieces and thrown away in the ocean. Dexter looked to good for them to suspect him.

On the other hand, other people tend to systematically be seen as the ideal culprits. Like Marty Kaan (Don Cheadle), a successful Afro-American business professional in House of Lies. In the seventh episode of the second season (The Runner Stumbles), he experiences racial profiling by the police as he is jogging in the night, with his hoodie and his earphones on. As he is running, two police officers see him and find that he “fits the description” of someone who may have just committed a crime or is about to commit one, so they attempt to stop him. Watch the show to see what happened to him. That episode was broadcasted twelve months after the much-publicized shooting of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old high school student  who was wearing a hoodie outside in the dark night. His neighbor, who shot him to death, reported to have felt threatened by him.

A person’s looks can also convey a feeling of threat. In a study “Facial dynamics as indicators of trustworthiness and cooperative behavior” (by Krumhuber, Eva; Manstead, Antony S. R.; Cosker, Darren; Marshall, Dave; Rosin, Paul L.; Kappas, Arvid), researchers looked at how individuals decide whether a person is trustworthy based on subtle facial cues. The researchers showed study participants short video clips of several different people, asking the participants to choose one of these people as their partner for a game. The people in the videos displayed either a genuine smile, a fake smile, or a neutral facial expression. The participants tended to trust more the people with a genuine smile and less those with the neutral facial expression. Arvid Kappas, one of the study’s authors and psychology professor at Jacobs University in Bremen (Germany), says the neutral faces may have seemed suspicious because they did not follow a social norm: smiling when presenting oneself. “I think most people are aware that not every person who greets you with a smile is truly happy about seeing you, but they follow the etiquette, the social contract. People who do not follow this social contract appear negative.” The conclusion of his study was that facial dynamics influence people’s decisions to cooperate. So if you want to be trusted, remember to smile, but have a genuine smile, not a scary one. Blink, but not fast, but certainly not too slow. I agree with Boyle: I think the bigger worry is slow blinks. And in a professional environment, when you apply for a job, negotiate a salary raise, interact with your colleagues, remember the beauty premium. Keep in mind that looks matter. [Read: Can You Ever Be Yourself At Work? with Dexter]

Then, what about the gurus or the dictators [Read: How Can A Vulnerable Human Being Become A Redoutable Tyrant? with Banshee] who manage to manipulate thousands of believers without even looking nice or good. I have personally saw many a picture of Adolf Hitler, but I never saw him smiling once. On the other hand, I remember the reactions of the supporters of the French Right wing (embodied at the time by Nicolas Sarkozy) when François Hollande (political left) defeated him at the 2012 presidential elections: “He looks like a pudding, he’s so flabby, he can’t be a President”. They started to call him “Camembert President”, as a hint at the soft cheese. They found it hard to picture him as a President because of how he looked (although he had gone on a diet before running for president and had lost several pounds). He did not have to be handsome for people to trust him (how many politicians can be described as handsome? Tell me!), he had to be charismatic.

Physical beauty has little to do with charisma, although it can help. Who do we expect to be beautiful?

2 comments on “S01E08: Do we trust people based on how they look?

  1. Pingback: S02E21: “Look, just because we’re good-looking doesn’t make us villains.” | The Series Philosopher

  2. Pingback: S04E03: Love and physical appearance | The Series Philosopher

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The Series Philosopher is a blog by P:S • Arts & Entertainment

The Series Philosopher is a woman in her late 20s. Not an Athenian or a Greek, but a citizen of the world.

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