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Could Stereotypes Affect Your Vision?

Stereotypes may creep into our perceptions earlier than we thought.

By Nathan Collins


(Photo: Dboybaker/Flickr)

Usually, we think of stereotypes in a sort of top-down way: When a white man comes across a black man, the white man may make inferences based on the black man’s race. But, new research suggests, stereotypes act in an even more fundamental and insidious fashion—not only do visual cues trigger stereotypes, stereotypes may also shape how we perceive those cues in the first place.

In a way, it’s not too surprising that stereotypes affect our perceptions. If people have it in their heads—as many do, whether they care to admit it or not—that black men are angrier, they’re more likely to perceive black men as angry (and threatening), regardless of the circumstance. Likewise, people tend to view men as angrier than women, again independent of whether any particular man or woman is angry.

What’s a little more unexpected is that these kinds of stereotypes and (mis)perceptions interact to strange effect. Blacks tend to be viewed as angrier than whites, for instance, and men tend to be viewed as angrier than women. As a result, New York University’s Jonathan Freeman and his colleagues argued in a 2012 paper, black faces can appear to be more masculine, all because there’s an overlap between the stereotypes we apply to black people and to men.

Social stereotypes could influence us from the moment we look in someone else’s eyes.

The question, Freeman and his graduate student Ryan Stolier write today in Nature Neuroscience, is just how deep that entanglement goes. To find out, they had a total of 43 people come into their lab and take part in two activities. First, participants categorized a series of faces on a computer screen according to race, gender, and emotion, an exercise that helped identify overlaps between different categories. Someone might be shown the face of a black woman on a computer screen, for example, and then use a mouse to click “man” or “woman.” If the mouse drifted slightly toward “man” before eventually settling on “woman,” that’s a sign there’s an overlap between the category “Black” and the category “Male.” Next, the subjects laid down in an fMRI brain scanner and viewed a second series of faces, again varying in race, gender, and emotional expression.

The data analysis proceeded in several steps. To start, Stolier and Freeman used the mouse-tracking data to estimate how similar each social category was to each other—for instance, how similar “Black” was to “Male.” Then, using the fMRI data, they looked for spots in the brain that mirrored those overlap patterns—for instance, places where there was a similar amount of overlap between “Black” and “Male” as in the mouse-tracking data.

Two brain regions in particular, the fusiform gyrus (FG) and the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), seemed to mirror the structure of social categories revealed in the mouse-tracking data. Though their exact functions aren’t fully understood, it’s thought that both FG and OFC play a role in processing and recognizing faces, suggesting that social stereotypes could influence us from the moment we look in someone else’s eyes.

“Our results bolster the emerging perspective that higher-order social cognitive processes may dynamically impact lower-level visual processes,” Stolier and Freeman write. “Thus, although stereotyping has long been considered a consequence of initially perceiving others via categories, our stereotypes can affect even our initial categorizations.”