You may tell your kids to “never judge a book by its cover,” but the truth is that adults draw conclusions about others based on a hunch all the time. Sometimes a quick glance is all it takes for us to feel like we have a sense of a person’s character. But do young children have the ability to make similar snap judgments? Harvard and Princeton researchers say yes.

A recent study published in the journal Psychological Science asked 99 adults and 141 children to look at pairs of computerized faces and determine which ones were trustworthy, nice, strong, or smart. While they expected the adults to come to similar conclusions about the faces, they weren’t sure how the children would perform. However, it turned out that kids as young as three were nearly as adept at consistently assessing a person’s character, especially when it came to trustworthiness. By age seven, the children were as good as adults in making such snap judgments. These findings demonstrate that toddlers can interpret facial cues, and that ample life experience is not required to hone this skill (though there may be some development up to age seven).

It’s worth noting, however, that the researchers didn’t actually measure whether the children were making accurate inferences about the faces shown; they simply determined that their conclusions were consistent rather than random, which indicates that they were processing physical traits in the same way. That means you shouldn’t use this study as an excuse to skip the “stranger danger” lectures, but it’s interesting to know how perceptive kids are from a very young age.


  • Harvard researchers determined that children as young as age three can look at an adult’s face and decide whether or not that person is trustworthy.
  • Although the study found that adults and kids make the same judgments about whether someone can be trusted based on looks, it did not investigate whether or not these inferences were correct.
  • This research suggests that the ability to assess a person’s character based on looks begins early in life and doesn’t require a lot of life experience.

Last reviewed by Eva Benmeleh, PhD. Review Date: September 2020


  1. Association for Psychological Sciences News. Young Children Form First Impressions From Faces.
  2. Psychological Science. Inferring Character From Faces: A Developmental Study.


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