‘Faces prompt us to form complex judgements’

People make complex judgements about a person just by looking at the face, based on a number of factors that go beyond race and gender, says a study.

Kimberly Quinn and her colleagues from the University of Birmingham found that people “see” faces in a multiple of ways.

“How we perceive faces is not just a reflection of what’s in those faces,” said Kimberly. “We are not objective; we bring our current goals and past knowledge to every new encounter. And this happens really quickly – within a couple of hundred milliseconds of seeing the face.”

This could have wider importance in understanding stereotyping and discrimination because it has implications on whether and how people categorise others.

The findings question a long-held belief that people immediately put a person they meet into a limited number of social categories such as: female or male; Asian, Black, Latino or White; and young or old.

Categorisation is not done purely on the physical features of the face in front of us, but depends on other information as well, including whether the person is already known and whether the person is believed to share other important identities with us, a Birmingham statement said.

Researchers explored social categories such as sex, race and age; physical attributes such as attractiveness; personality traits such as trustworthiness; and emotional states such as anger, sadness and happiness.

In order to investigate the causes, mechanisms, and results of social categorisation, Quinn used techniques from cognitive psychology and neuroscience to investigate how people process faces.

The research was designed to provide insight into when and why people categorise others according to social group membership.

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Their findings differ from previous research that adopted a ‘dual process’ approach and assumed people initially categorised faces based on factors such as gender, race or age before determining whether to stereotype them or to see them as unique individuals.

Quinn’s findings were more consistent with a single process that initially focuses on ‘coarse’ information that is easy to detect, and then immediately starts to include more fine-grained processing as time elapses.

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