On some primal, evolutionary level, getting ostracized from a group is a horrible fear for many of us, and avoiding it is an important, ongoing goal in life. Not to blame any victims here, but researchers have a new idea of how your facial expression affects social exclusion, and it's pretty dramatic. Since knowing about our biases is the first step to fixing them, you might want to be aware that you could be doing this to others, too. Sometimes a person really does deserve to be excluded from your posse, but probably not just for the face they were born with!
This research comes from psychologists at the University of Basel in Switzerland, who showed some male faces to almost 500 participants in the experiment. Thanks to the wonders of digital technology, the displayed faces had been altered to look warm or cold and competent or incompetent. Participants had just two seconds to evaluate each face before deciding whether or not it would be reasonable to exclude the pictured man from a group.
As reported by Science Daily, "In all studies, participants found it more acceptable to socially exclude people whose faces looked cold and incompetent. However, exclusion was found least acceptable when those excluded looked warm and incompetent." On one level, these findings aren't too surprising. Although incompetent people may need our help (and therefore it'd be wrong to turn them away from our groups), cold people are more difficult to be around, and warm people are generally easier to be around. So there are probably limits to how far people will go to protect others.
On the other hand, it's pretty darn striking that the experimental participants so reliably picked out the faces after seeing them for only two seconds — and that they were so willing to discriminate on that basis. If the effects of facial quality were minor, you'd see more of a random pattern to who the participants were willing to exclude from their groups. But that's not what happened.
Part of the challenge with biases like this is that people make quick, "snap" judgments (sometimes for no particularly good reason), and then they have to exert a bunch of mental effort to backtrack from that snap judgment even when it was a bad one. Unfortunately, there's no good way to approach people with none of your biases activated, to form a genuinely neutral impression of them at first. Knowledge is power though, so before you go too hard on someone socially, be sure to check your reasons. And though it stinks that you have to do this, if you're having a hard time making inroads with others, it might be time to practice smiling.