Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Snap judgment

The enlightened amongst us like to think that they're free from biases and prejudice, that they treat everyone fairly, that they make no judgments about people until they have information.

Unfortunately, that's probably not true.  A study by Jonathan Freeman et al. at New York University that appeared last week in Nature Neuroscience has shown that we all are susceptible to stereotyping people based on gender and race -- and that those stereotypes are remarkably hard to eradicate.

What Freeman and his team did was to take advantage of a technique for detecting unconscious cognitive impulses.  Using sensitive mouse-tracking software, the researchers were able to monitor split-second movements of the hands of the test subjects.  Presented with a variety of photographs of faces, and a list of descriptors ("angry," "happy," "fearful," "neutral," etc.) the participants had to select the word they thought was most appropriate -- but the software was keeping track of where their hands went as soon as the photograph flashed on the screen.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

What happened is that the ultimate word selection is often not what the test subject had initially moved toward.  And far from there being no correlation -- in other words, that the initial hand motion was random until the subject decided his/her actual answer -- the unconscious impulses followed a rather disturbing pattern.

Female faces were far more likely to elicit a movement toward words like "happy" or "passive" or "appeasing," regardless of the actual expression their faces showed.  Men generated movement toward "strong," "aggressive," and "dominant."  More troubling still, photographs of African American males caused people to tend toward "angry" and "hostile."

And remember, these judgments were completely independent of the actual expression of the person in the photograph.  A neutral African American male still triggered negative judgments, a frowning female face labels of passivity and compliance.

"Previous studies have shown that how we perceive a face may, in turn, influence our behavior," said Ryan Stolier, an NYU doctoral student and lead author of the research. "Our findings therefore shed light upon an important and perhaps unanticipated route through which unintended bias may influence interpersonal behavior."

"Our findings provide evidence that the stereotypes we hold can systematically alter the brain's visual representation of a face, distorting what we see to be more in line with our biased expectations," Freeman said.  "For example, many individuals have ingrained stereotypes that associate men as being more aggressive, women as being more appeasing, or Black individuals as being more hostile—though they may not endorse these stereotypes personally.  Our results suggest that these sorts of stereotypical associations can shape the basic visual processing of other people, predictably warping how the brain 'sees' a person's face."

These findings are unsettling.  A lot of us like to think that we've grown past our tendency to make snap judgments about people based on their ethnicity and gender, but it turns out that we may not be as free of them as we believe.  You have to wonder how much these sorts of tendencies play in to things like the targeting of African American males by policemen.  When an instantaneous reaction on the part of a police officer can mean the difference between life and death, there may not be time to override the unconscious jump to judgment that all of our brains make, and that the rest of us have the leisure to rethink.

So are we all bigots at heart?  The conclusion may not be as dire as all that.  The virtue is not in eliminating automatic stereotypical thinking, but in becoming conscious of it, in not letting those thoughts (which are almost certainly incorrect) go unquestioned.  It behooves us all to consider what goes on in our brains as rationally as possible, and not simply to accept whatever pops into our minds as the literal fact.

Or, as Michael Shermer put it:  "Don't believe everything you think."

1 comment:

  1. There is a disturbing divide between how a person presents themselves to the world... and how they prefer to be... seen.

    Dave Chapelle has a fantastic bit related to this phenomenon. To paraphrase:
    "Alright. We get it. You are not a whore... but you are wearing a whore's uniform! I'm gonna dress like a cop and when people come up to me and ask me for help I'm gonna get indignant. 'How dare you! Just because I'm dressed this way does not make me a public servant!"

    If a person wears the waist of their pants below their waist so I can intentionally see their boxers... They are doing so as a visual display... yet if I make judgements about that visual display, *I* am the one generalizing. It's a double standard that allows someone to reap the societal benefits of looking like a degenerate (like being feared and left alone in public), with indignancy if they are actually treated as a degenerate.

    In the past 100 years, for the most part a greaser or a mod or a punk or a goth or a rocker or a nerd or a jock would (for the most part) understand (and even cop to) most of the judgement they received. Intentionally looking a certain way will have people thinking you associate with the intentional look you are subscribing too. Right? In today's culture, you get to rep a certain clique, then get offended when people acknowledge it.

    Humans might have bigoted tendencies, but they also have a desire to classify and make sense of the world around them. In today's hyper social justice culture, people are playing up both sides of this coin for their own advantages. People are also being subjugated. It's such a miasma.