Dr Kimberly Quinn
A study, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), has found that the judgements we make about people based on their faces, take into account a wider range of factors than we previously thought.
Until now, the commonly held contention was that people make immediate judgements about others based on a limited number of categories – namely, female or male, Asian, Black, Latino or White, and young or old. However, researchers from the University of Birmingham have found that this hypothesis oversimplifies how facial perception actually operates.
If I see you as female then I am going to treat you like a female and expect you to behave like a female. However, if I don’t see you as a female, I won’t apply my stereotypes to you. Of course, this field of research has implications for issues like prejudice and discrimination, but those are so much more complicated. My research represents just a tiny piece in the prejudice and discrimination puzzle.
Dr Kimberly Quinn
The team found that people ‘see’ other faces in a number of ways. When we categorise, we do not do so purely on the physical features of the perceived face. Our judgements are also shaped by factors such as whether the person in question is known to us, and whether or not he or she is believed to share any of our other important identities.
I spoke to Dr Kimberly Quinn, Senior Lecturer at Birmingham’s School of Psychology, to find out more about the nuances involved in facial perception. I began by asking Dr Quinn whether she expected to find that facial perception was based on a broader range of factors than we previously thought.
"Yes," she replied. "A lot of analyses in the literature – theoretical analyses – appear to me to be very limited. The idea that when you see somebody, you just put them into one category and that is the only way you see them, just doesn’t seem plausible. It doesn’t seem to correlate with our normal experiences. It is possible to become temporarily distracted by a person’s race or their gender, but when you interact with them, you tend to go further."
During the study, Dr Quinn and her colleagues found that social categories could be easily undermined. The team discovered that people tend to reject simple stereotypes when experience contradicts their validity. For example, whilst one might possess a stereotype concerning a particular ethnic group, this stereotype can be counteracted by witnessing a member of that ethnic group behaving in a different manner. I asked Dr Quinn whether she was surprised by this finding.
"Well I was very pleased by it, but I wasn’t really surprised," she answered. "As I said, I never personally believed that we only see people in such terms."
Positive experience has the power to undermine negative stereotypes, but is it possible for positive generalisations to be eradicated by negative experiences? Dr Quinn conceded that it was, but explained that our reactions are context-sensitive.
"There has been previous evidence of this kind of thing," she explained. "For example, if you were to encounter a black doctor, you might hold a stereotype that all doctors are intelligent and another that states that black people are not associated with intelligence. There is some evidence to suggest that if you have a positive experience of this person, your stereotype about doctors will be reinforced. However, if you receive negative feedback from the person, you will tend to think of them in terms of your stereotype about black people. It’s still the same person but your reaction will depend on the nature of the encounter.
"This process is self-serving and very flexible. If you like what you hear, you will view a person in a positive light and thus positively stereotype. Alternatively, if you don’t like what you hear, you will view a person in a negative light and you will negatively stereotype. It’s all about how relevant it is to you. You don’t necessarily see people as they are. You see them in terms of how they relate to you."
In some ways, the results of this study differ from previous research that adopted the ‘dual process’ approach; a theory that assumes people initially categorise faces according to factors such as gender, race and age, and then decide between stereotyping and judging the subjects as individuals. I asked Dr Quinn whether her findings indicated that facial perception was more immediate than the dual process approach would suggest.
"Not necessarily," she responded. "The dual process approach basically says that there is a fast, unconscious process that is occurring alongside this slower, more deliberate, potentially more conscious process. Whilst our results are consistent with dual processes, there are certain differences. Whether or not you get to know a person, you will tend to devote more attention to the slower, conscious process. The fast stuff just happens whether or not you want it to. However, our findings suggest that the fast stuff is more flexible than we previously thought. People used to believe that the fast reactions occurred regardless: ‘I see that you’re black’, ‘I see that you’re a woman’, etc. The slower aspects would be reflections such as, ‘You’re black, but…’, ‘You’re a woman, but…’ Our evidence suggests that the fast stuff can also be shaped."
I went on to ask Dr Quinn to explain more about how her research might increase our understanding of stereotyping and discrimination. She explained that there were significant differences between the two fields of inquiry.
"These are both huge questions, and my research mostly has implications for stereotyping rather than for discrimination," she outlined. "More is happening when we discriminate than when we stereotype. I haven’t looked into the competition that makes us want to discriminate against others to help our own group. My research largely concerns categorisation and resultant stereotyping.
"For example, if I see you as female then I am going to treat you like a female and expect you to behave like a female. However, if I don’t see you as a female, I won’t apply my stereotypes to you. Of course, this field of research has implications for issues like prejudice and discrimination, but those are so much more complicated. My research represents just a tiny piece in the prejudice and discrimination puzzle."
I concluded our interview by questioning Dr Quinn about the nature of her future research.
"My colleagues and I have shifted our focus a little bit," she explained. "Most of the work that we have so far conducted has been about targeting social categorisation. This is an area that social psychologists tend to focus on because we are concerned with issues such as prejudice and discrimination. Cognitive psychologists and neuropsychologists, on the other hand, are interested in questions such as, ‘How do I recognise that your name is Tom?’ We would like to bring these focuses closer together.
"We want to find out where it is that identity and category intersect. It is easy to see people in terms of categories as you don’t have to know much about them. However, when you get to know people in terms of their identities, how do you apply your stereotypes to them? Essentially, we want to examine the identity recognition process, and how this shapes categorisation further down the line."