Should we always believe what we see?

Our research is revealing that the visual processing of faces can be influenced by our prejudices (Ofan et al., 2011, 2014), group membership (Ratner & Amodio, 2013; Ratner et al., 2014), economic scarcity (Krosch & Amodio, 2014), feelings of power (Schmid & Amodio, 2017), and other social factors. These findings further suggest that the biases in face processing often support our goals, such that they lead us to see people in ways that justify our actions—for example, viewing racial minority faces as less human-like to justify sharing fewer resources with them (Krosch & Amodio, 2019).

Why is perception important for understanding implicit bias?

Biased visual processing can seriously undermine the control of prejudice. If our initial perceptions are biased—for example, if a person’s group membership leads us to view their face as appearing untrustworthy—we would assume this impression is accurate and have no reason to control it when responding to the person. Hence, this research reveals a potent expression of bias that is especially resistant to control.

Furthermore, it challenges models of prejudice control that require a person to detect their bias in order to control it; because perceptual bias are nearly impossible to detect, new kinds of interventions are needed (e.g., situational interventions and proactive control; Amodio & Swencionis, 2018).

Top-down effects of social factors on perceptual processes

In addition to implication for intergroup bias, this research addresses a more basic psychological question about the interface between “bottom-up” and “top-down” processes, showing that our social goals, attitudes, and beliefs can influences aspects of visual processing (e.g., face encoding) that were traditionally viewed as purely stimulus-driven effects.

Our lab continues to explore the effects of social goals, group membership, and prejudices on the visual processing of faces, using a combination of ERP, fMRI, and behavioral methods.