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Mindful : October 2016
Jonathan Freeman of New York University, a pioneer in the field of social perception, who summarized his body of work in a May 2016 review in Trends in Cognitive Sciences. As a result of “the baggage we bring to the table,” what we literally see is not a straightforward read-out of facial features, but rather a complex construct with input from the brain’s belief system. If we are raised in “a cultural context where the implicit associations that create these biases are absorbed,” in Freeman’s words, the biases will show up in our perceptions. And this super-rapid sizing-up can have trou- bling real-world consequences. African-Amer- icans engaging in the very same behavior as whites are seen as more threatening or aggres- sive, according to numerous studies that go back to the 1970s. Subjects asked to quickly identify a blurry object in a photo were more likely to see guns, knives, and other weapons in the hands of black people and things like cell phones and wallets in the hands of whites. Many believe that erroneous split-second perceptions have been a major factor in police officers’ miscalcu- lation of the threat posed by suspects (and even innocent bystanders). While this phenomenon with respect to policing has not been extensively studied yet, Freeman is clear that, “perceptual biases can play a role in driving behavior.” Freeman uses a technique called mouse-tracking (the computer kind, not the rodent), in which people look at a face and as quickly as possible use the mouse to click on some attribute of it: black or white or Asian, for instance, male or female, hostile or friendly. The key thing about a mouse is that it is highly sensi- tive to partial, tentative shifts in perception, and its movement can be precisely tracked. Freeman therefore knows if people start to move toward one attribute before changing their minds. In other words, he’s not interested only in the final answer but whether there was uncertainty in getting to it: If someone steers the mouse toward “male” before clicking on “female” when asked the gender of a face, that shows that the brain initially thought of male. The participants in Freeman’s studies have tended to be university undergraduates and now are commonly people reached online through survey companies. In both cases, participants tend to be fairly evenly split between male and female and are predominantly white, reflecting the country’s racial make-up. Although there were not enough people in minority groups to break them out and analyze them separately, in general, he maintains that the biases shown by split-second perception “tend to exist across all individuals so long as they were raised in a cultural context” where these implicit biases were absorbed. In one experiment (published in 2011 in PLoS One), Freeman showed volunteers men wear- ing either a janitor’s uniform or a business suit. “ What is his race?” Freeman asked. When a white man was in a janitor’s uniform, the vol- unteers’ hands initially moved toward “black” before (usually) correcting and choosing white. When a black man was in a business suit, the mouse headed for “white” before choosing black. The more racially ambiguous a face, the more often people initially chose the race that stereo- types associate with high- or low-status attire. Freeman believes this demonstrates just how powerfully stereotypes can steer perception. “Stereotypes or expectations can literally change what we see when we look at a face,” Freeman said. “ For a few hundred milliseconds, we literally see someone wearing low-status attire stereotypically associated with blacks as black before it is ultimately categorized as white.” Using the same mouse-tracking technique, Freeman and his colleagues have found that when asked what emotion a black face is expressing, people initially move the mouse toward “angry” before ultimately selecting “joy” (the actual expression on the face, as virtually all the volunteers eventually see). This misper- ception exacerbates our already-poor ability to → DEFINITION Top-Down Processing When our brain and nervous sys- tem encounters an external stimulus, how it detects and defines that stim- ulus is based on mental categories we use to map the world. Those maps can be mildly to very distorted. The more racially ambiguous a face, the more often people initially chose the race that stereotypes associate with high- or low-status attire. For an in-depth story on using mindfulness to counteract the effects of implicit bias, see: mindful.org/ breakingbias 22 mindful October 2016 brain science