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This Is How Stereotypes Affect The Way Your Brain Perceives Faces

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Perhaps Avenue Q was right: everyone's a little bit racist. Not only that, but our own biases can affect the way we see other people's faces.

Stereotyping, including several forms of racism, has been frowned upon by society. However, as it turns out, everyone may have an implicit bias — that is, prejudice without really meaning to — according to a new study.

These biases, which can be so deeply ingrained within us, may have the ability to influence or alter the way our brain processes visual information, including faces.

"For example, many individuals have ingrained stereotypes that associate men as being more aggressive, women as being more appeasing, or black individuals as being more hostile — though they may not endorse these stereotypes personally," said Jonathan Freeman, senior author and psychology assistant professor at New York University.

For the study, the researchers monitored the brain activity of the participants using a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while participants were shown different types of faces. Using mouse-tracking, the participants were also asked to identify the gender, race and emotion of the faces they were seeing.

The results of both these activities revealed that there is a direct correlation between the brain's activity and the participants' answers, which were possibly influenced by bias. This is even after there was an attempt to control their reactions.

For example, participants were more likely to consider a black face as an angry one, even if it didn't show such emotion. This was then corroborated by the imaging result, which suggested brain activity that occurs when seeing an angry face.

Similar associations were found when they saw Asian faces, which they viewed as more feminine, or female faces, and which they judged as happier.

The results of the experiment can have a profound impact on issues such as discrimination, racism and cultural divisions, including worsening the existing biases.

"The findings highlight the need to address these biases at the visual level as well, which may be more entrenched and require specific forms of intervention," expressed Freeman.

The study is now available in Nature Neuroscience.

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