If you believe you’re always a fair and reasonable individual who has never stereotyped a person based on their race or sex, then think again.
A new study published in Nature Neuroscience this week, suggests that we unknowingly form an judgement about a person when we see their face before we’ve have even had time to think because the process of stereotyping is ingrained within our brains.
Two US-based researchers studied the reactions of 43 volunteers who looked at images of male and female, black, white and Asian faces at a high speed.
The participants were asked to associate one of two emotions – happy or angry – as they thought they related to sex and race.
The scientists then analysed the direction each participant initially moved their computer mouse to link gender and race with an emotion in the test, before they consciously associated happy or angry with a sex and race.
They test found the participants possessed an unconscious bias, deeming black men to be angry and Asian women to be happy.
“Even though someone doesn’t know they are processing those stereotypes, judgments can become ingrained in the way information is being processed in the brain."
“Behaviorally, we found that the process of perceiving gender, race, or emotion from a face was biased toward how the face…was stereotypically expected to appear,” the study reads.
“Namely, male faces tended to be biased toward angry categorisations, female faces toward happy categorisations, black toward male, Asian toward female, and black toward angry, consistent with prior studies.”
Head of Neural Plasticity and NHMRC Senior Research Fellow at the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health, Professor Anthony Hannan, agrees with the study's finding that stereotypes can become an unconscious bias in the brain.
“Even though someone doesn’t know they are processing those stereotypes, judgments can become ingrained in the way information is being processed in the brain,” says Prof Hannan.
“People think they are objectively judging a person’s face but the reality is that the brain may be linking a particular attribute, such as sex or race, with a perceived emotion, like happy or angry, thus unconsciously adding subjectivity and prejudice to judgements.”
“Just because a stereotype is ingrained in your brain, it doesn’t make you racist or sexist. We are all subject to subconscious stereotypes but we can consciously overrule that."
He adds that if this study were conducted in Australia, researchers would use different visual representations of race but the test would yield similar conclusions.
“We might not see identical results to the US-tailored study but you would most likely find stereotypes and bias in the way the faces of strangers are judged (or pre-judged) upon ‘first impressions’,” says Prof Hannan.
However, he cautions, although the study is interesting, it is also deliberately simplistic in representing the true scale of human emotions in order to test specific hypotheses in a laboratory setting.
“We should be careful not to extrapolate too broadly from this one study, with respect to complex real-world problems such as racism and sexism.”
The study only looked at unconscious bias. It did not examine whether environmental factors and issues to do with genetics, epigenetics and brain development impact their conscious bias towards race or sex.
“Just because a stereotype is ingrained in your brain, it doesn’t make you racist or sexist. We are all subject to subconscious stereotypes but we can consciously overrule that.
“The environment and culture also influence whether a person becomes inclined to be racist or sexist in their judgements. And then it is their decision whether to act on that.
“If you go into a court of law and say, ‘my brain made me to do it’, it won’t stand as a defence.
“Your thoughts, emotions and actions are products of your brain, and your brain in turn is a complex product of your genome and ‘envirome’ (environment and experience) throughout development and adulthood.
“However, you still have choice and free will.”