The Science Behind Stereotyping - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The Science Behind Stereotyping

By Melissa Pandika


Jon Freeman’s research on how stereotypes shape our mental processes might offer our best hope of subverting them. 

Jon Freeman has a classically handsome face, with a thin, aquiline nose and an angular jawline bearing the slightest hint of stubble. He ditches the contact lenses for tortoiseshell specs and sports a navy-blue American Apparel button-down and gray slim-fit slacks, even if he’d rather throw on a T-shirt and jeans. You might label him a professor or researcher, but not necessarily a frat bro — and that’s how he wants it.

We judge people all the time, and Freeman, an assistant professor of psychology at NYU, studies how it happens, down to the neural level. He’s discovered through a series of acclaimed experiments that our hidden biases and stereotypes can shape how our brains perceive people — whether we trust them, vote for them and even how we identify their race or sexual orientation. But most importantly, and disturbingly, he’s discovering how fast people make these snap judgments — in a matter of milliseconds, before we even realize we’ve made them. 

Named one of Forbes’ 2015 30 Under 30 in Science, and already cited by colleagues remarkably often, you might expect Freeman would have some white hair on his temples to go with those hipster glasses. But he’s just a 28-year-old, one whose personal experiences have taught him a little about the harms of stereotyping.    

He saw how his friends’ biases affected how they acted toward him, even if they’d voiced acceptance of his sexual orientation.

Social psychologists, of course, have studied stereotypes since at least 1933, when a survey of university students revealed a disturbingly high level of bias against racial and ethnic groups. More recently, researchers have found that people favored photos of candidates whose skin color had been lightened versus those whose tone had been darkened. Journalist Malcolm Gladwell delves into similar experiments on snap decision-making in his book Blink. But Freeman focuses on an even earlier part of the process: the first few fractions of a second, before we’re even consciously aware of what we’re seeing. And he relies heavily on sophisticated neuroscience techniques — like brain imaging — to unravel exactly how this process occurs. 

The work, as with much of social psychology, has its skeptics. But Freeman “is making a broad impact,” says Kerri Johnson, an associate professor of communications at UCLA and Freeman’s former undergraduate adviser. He has a serious following: Since he was a Ph.D. student in 2008, Freeman’s research has been annotated nearly 1,200 times; the average for young assistant professors is far less. 

Freeman geeks out over his research, erudite yet conversational. Think the hip, nerdy-cute professor whose lecture you look forward to each day. A recent Greenwich Village transplant, he spends his rare glimmers of spare time at indie concerts and Williamsburg vintage boutiques. He discovered a passion for psychology when he moved from the Boston area to bustling NYU, bombarded with first impressions. Coming out as gay as a freshman also shaped him. He saw how his friends’ biases still affected how they perceived and acted toward him — even if they had voiced acceptance of his sexual orientation. Some worried he couldn’t “hang with the bros” anymore, and his roommate changed his mind about living with him.

As a doctoral student in psychology at Tufts University, Freeman investigated whether stereotypes influence how we perceive someone’s race. He and his colleagues showed participants male faces that varied in skin tone, wearing either a business suit or custodian uniform. MouseTracker software that Freeman had developed revealed that participants’ cursors moved more slowly and hovered longer over the “white” button if the man was in a suit, even if he was black. Freeman’s MouseTracker also suggests that people tend to view black males as more aggressive.

The findings suggest that we decide whether to trust people before we even realize that we’ve seen their faces.

After Tufts, Freeman took an assistant professor position at Dartmouth College — at age 26 — where he applied MouseTracker to investigate whether our perception of a political candidate’s gender can affect election results. His group presented participants with several candidates’ faces and asked them to identify their gender. Female politicians whose faces made them pause and wander toward the “male” button were less likely to have won their elections, especially in conservative states. In other words, gender cues can shape “how we’re organizing society,” Freeman says. The more “feminine” a female politician looks, the likelier she’ll find success. 

At NYU, Freeman has dug deeper into the brain. In one study published last year, his team showed participants about 300 faces for 33 milliseconds each and scanned a brain region called the amygdala, responsible for processing scary expressions. The more untrustworthy a face, the higher the amygdala activity. But the fusiform cortex, the region that helps you consciously see faces, remained inactive, suggesting that we decide whether to trust people even before we realize that we’ve seen their faces. These mental shortcuts can relay crucial information in a pinch — but aren’t always correct.  

Such findings, of course, have a huge potential for human encounters, especially timely in light of police encounters in Ferguson and New York, where split-second decisions were made in response to questionable threats. For his part, Freeman is hoping that just paying closer attention to our hidden expectations will be a step toward weaning us from snap decisions. “Simply raising awareness of these subtle biases can motivate us to change,” Freeman says.

Photography by Jordan Hollender for OZY.

* Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the average number of citations for assistant professors.   

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