Leaders of the past less trustworthy, study finds

Researchers used a face-processing algorithm to study thousands of portraits spanning 500 years

When it comes to a choice between Barack Obama and King Henry VIII, the algorithm is clear on who can be most trusted. AP Photo/Getty Images
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Given that he chopped off the heads of two his six wives and performed one of the most screeching U-turns in political history, England's infamous 16th century King Henry VIII was clearly not an easy ruler to serve.

Five centuries later, a modern computer face-processing algorithm designed to examine the nature of leadership has come up with a similar conclusion: the king who led a religious schism in Europe was not a man to be trusted.

In a fascinating study of how people perceive decision-makers throughout the ages, French researchers scrutinised facial features through portraits and concluded that modern-day leaders were more likely to be trusted than their historical counterparts.

There are some features identified linked with trust such as big eyes and a smiling mouth

The study, published today in the journal Nature Communications, found that the increase in trust was associated with rising living standards.

The researchers used the algorithm to rate and compare the muscle contractions of sitters in thousands of European portraits from 1500 to 2000 to assess how they would have been seen by their subjects.

Previous work has found that the size of eyes and specific muscle movements that change the shape of mouths and eyebrows are all likely to have an impact on building trust.

Lou Safra, one of the paper’s authors, said: “There are some features identified linked with trust such as big eyes and a smiling mouth. Is someone, more or less, looking like a baby.”

Social trust is seen as a measure of integrity and honesty and the extent to which people are prepared to cooperate with each other.

It has been connected to improvements in economic performance and lower crime rates.

The researchers compared the facial features of more than 6,000 portraits from 19 European countries, including one of nineteenth century London mayor Matthew Wood.

George IV, a clever but indolent king who ruled from 1820-30, was rated trustworthy based upon the algorithm’s assessment of one of his portraits.

Ms Safra, an assistant professor at Sciences Po Paris, said that whilst the portraits might not reflect the sitters’ true natures, the monarchs would have had control over how they were painted.

UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1754: Matthew Wood (1768-1843) English political and municipal reformer. Serge manufacturer, Lord Mayor of London, friend and advisor to Queen Caroline. Hand-coloured engraving, 1820 (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

The question of social trust was first asked in the 1950s, according to a blog by David Halpern who heads a former UK government unit that examined the effect of behaviour on policy.

“Social trust is a deep-seated indicator of the health of our societies and our economies. It merits much more attention than it gets,” said Mr Halpern, the chief executive of the Behavioural Insights Team.