Fascinated by Faces

August 30, 2017

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: humans are visual first, verbal second.  When it comes to connecting, whether it be across cultures or distances, there’s no question that visuals are the way to go.  Just look at the success of apps like Snapchat or Instagram, whose image-based social media platforms respectively boast 166 and 300 million daily active users.  What people really love and pay attention to, though, is faces: Google Photos, a year after it hit the market, had logged 24 billion selfies.

Now new research is suggesting humans’ affinity for faces begins even before we’ve left the womb.  Researchers decided to test the theory by showing developing babies images of faces through their mothers’ uterine walls.  They projected light into the womb and displayed faces upright and upside-down, measuring the babies’ reactions via 4D ultrasound.  The results?  Despite the fact that both sets of faces were new, interesting stimuli to the babies, the upside-down faces didn’t elicit as much response.  But the babies responded similarly to young infants when the upright faces entered their field of vision, turning their heads to investigate far more often.

So, what does this mean for those of us out of the womb?  It turns out that using faces in visual storytelling is a key tool to capture your audience’s attention.  As we discussed in our “Seeing is Believing” report, humans are wired not to look away from a face that’s looking right at them.  Eye contact is key, at least in Western cultures. Because we’re programmed to watch faces for reactions, using an image of a face will draw your viewer in automatically.

This information becomes all the more powerful when harnessed to evoke emotion.  We’ve talked about this before, but it’s worth mentioning again: visuals evoke emotion, and emotion drives people to act.  You can better tap into your audience’s emotions by using authentic photos, featuring faces they can easily connect to (read: that look like them), and trying to choose images featuring just one person versus a group.  Finally, if your messaging involves development work toward fixing big world issues, it’s important to showcase hope, spirit and dignity over hopelessness.  A subject who’s suffering makes your audience want to look away, while one who’s hopeful makes them feel uplifted and inspired to help.

Clearly there’s something in our brains that makes us fascinated with faces, right from the beginning. Now it’s up to you to use that information to get your message across as powerfully as you can.

— Alison Lorenz, former intern