Can we detect cooperators by looking at their face?

Jean-François Bonnefon, Wim De Neys, and Astrid Hopfensitz


Humans are willing to cooperate with each other for mutual benefit—and to accept the risk of exploitation. To avoid collaborating with the wrong person, people sometimes attempt to detect cooperativeness in others’ body language, facial features, and facial expressions. But how reliable are these impressions? We review the literature on the detection of cooperativeness in economic games, from those with protocols that provide a lot of information about players (e.g., through long personal interactions) to those with protocols that provide minimal information (e.g., through the presentation of passport-like pictures). This literature suggests that people can detect cooperativeness with a small but significant degree of accuracy when they have interacted with or watched video clips of other players, but that they have a harder time extracting information from pictures. The conditions under which people can detect cooperation from pictures with better than chance accuracy suggest that successful cooperation detection is supported by purely intuitive processes.

Published in

Current Directions in Psychological Science, vol. 26, 2017, pp. 276–281