Part 1 of 2 about the role of social context in how we see people
When you look at a face, you don’t just see what’s in front of you. You are also processing a whole host of social information about the person. And this happens fast – as quick as one-tenth of a second – according to new research that shows that we almost immediately categorize people into social groups independent of racial or other visual cues to group membership.
“Many prominent models of face and person perception ignore the role of the social context,” says Jay Van Bavel of New York University. Work by Van Bavel and others, being presented next month at the Cognitive Neuroscience Society (CNS) annual meeting in Boston, hopes to “illuminate the fundamental role of social relationships, goals, and context” in how we perceive people, Van Bavel says.
Using behavioral studies, electroencephalography (EEG), and fMRI imaging, Van Bavel and his colleagues have been studying how group identities shape our evaluations of other people. In one experiment, he found that assigning people to a mixed-race group overrides racial biases – suggesting that our perceptions of race are more about whether people are part of our social group than about the color of a person’s skin.
As Van Bavel and Mina Cikara of Carnegie Mellon University argue in a new review paper in Perspectives in Psychological Science, a growing body of work shows that how we categorize ourselves into groups is very flexible and dependent on a number of situational factors. Therefore, it is necessary to blend social psychology with neuroscience to understand how we view “us” vs. “them.”
A key question is whether our brains can visually see race. In new work, Van Bavel and colleagues tested whether Afrocentric versus Caucasian facial features are still represented in the visual system, even when there is no evidence of racial bias. As in previous behavioral studies, the researchers assigned participants to mixed-race groups where they had to memorize the faces of the members of their team. They then looked at how the participants categorized their team members while in an fMRI scanner.
The researchers found that despite participants identifying faces of a different race as part of their team, “multi-voxel pattern” analysis revealed race-based brain responses in the visual cortex: The researchers could identify the race of the faces based on an analysis of the participants’ brain patterns while categorizing them. “Although participants may have been egalitarian in terms of their perceptions and evaluations, they were not ‘color-blind’ so to speak,” Van Bavel says.
To better understand the timing of how our brains recognize race and categorize social groups, Van Bavel’s team is using EEG data. “According to most models of person perception, race should come first because it is visually salient and laden with stereotypic and prejudicial associations,” he says. “However, we have two EEG experiments showing that group membership may alter perceptual responses as early as 100 milliseconds after people are presented with a face.”
This research is evidence, he says, that people are highly sensitive to group alignments and these identities “appear to tune the perceptual system”. This is actually good news for racial stereotypes and bias: “People are not passive victims of their implicit racial biases,” Van Bavel says. “Instead, they may be able to create new environments where a common in-group identity can help shape their automatic reactions to others.”
Van Bavel will present this work as part of the mini-symposium Putting Person Perception In Context: Insights from Social Neuroscience on Sunday, April 6 at the CNS meeting in Boston. Read more about how race interacts with gender and emotion in a blog post later this week, featuring work by Jon Freeman, also to be presented in the mini-symposium.
-Lisa M.P. Munoz
Press can register now to attend the CNS annual meeting in Boston.