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Subconscious Visual Bias

May 10, 2016

A neuroscientist finds that subconscious stereotypes can lead us to see hostility in friendly faces.



Seeing stereotypes. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Subconscious biases affect our perceptions of others, according to New York University social neuroscientist John Freeman.

JONATHAN FREEMAN (New York University):

These stereotypes can actually change the basic way that we visually process another person.


In the journal Nature Neuroscience, he reports that volunteers correctly matched images of faces with the emotions they expressed. But when shown an image of, say, a smiling person who had dark skin, sensors revealed that many moved their computer mouse towards another selection, like “angry”, before changing course. Brain scans showed that at the same instant, the brain’s visual system was communicating with the area that stores stereotypes. Freeman says that as a result, in situations where people have to respond quickly, their brains may misinterpret a face that’s happy as one that’s threatening, and respond inapproporiately. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.