The Industrial Revolution was a dizzying time. People were moving from small outposts to big cities; they were crossing borders and settling far from their roots. Society had been so much simpler for the past couple of million years, when everyone for the most part lived in tribal groups. These were essentially extended families in which you either knew or knew of anyone you could possibly encounter, and so you could easily discern their demeanor and intentions. Now, though, we have to quickly and reliably tell friend from foe, at a time when so many people look so different from you.
Hence the 19th century was the golden age of a pseudoscience known as physiognomy. “The physiognomists promised an easy way to solve the problem of understanding other people,” writes Alexander Todorov, a psychology Professor at Princeton. “Knowing them from their faces.” Physiognomists proposed and promoted rules about how facial features and structures revealed character traits and abilities.
Professor Todorov’s new book, Face Value: The Irresistible Influence of First Impressions, is about much more than 19th-century pseudoscience. It’s about first impressions more generally. We all form them instantly—within 30-40 milliseconds, before we can consciously register even seeing a face. And we start exceptionally early on, probably at around seven months of age. We also seem to agree on these impressions, which makes the physiognomists’ promise so appealing.