Stereotypes and Other Biases in Person Perception

One line of my work is focused on understanding various perceiver factors that bias people’s initial social perception of others. These factors include people’s general biases about gender and race as well as the perceiver’s own social environment. These biases influence one’s perception from the moment we see a person’s face. This line of research shows that social perceptions occur in the rich context of the perceiver’s beliefs and knowledge, including beliefs and knowledge learned from their specific environment (e.g., country). Theoretical integration between the way we think about stereotypes, personality, and face impressions – topics that traditionally have been studied independently – is clearly needed. My research aims to uncover these deeply intertwined relationships to provide a more complete account of social perception.

To investigate the various perceiver factors affecting intuitive judgments of others (e.g., the perceiver’s beliefs about other people, the perceiver’s unique experience), I employ various techniques, including statistical modeling, dimensionality reduction, experiments, multivariate pattern analysis, and representational similarity analysis. In my research, I have shown the biasing role of visual cues of (1) gender, (2) economic status, and  (3) the social environment in social perception. 

Role of Facial Gender Cues in Person Perception

Gender cues in faces bias judgments of other individuals’ traits from faces. My colleagues and I built a statistical face model (Oh et al., 2019 Vis Res; Todorov & Oh, 2021 Adv Exp Soc Psychol) representing intuitive judgments of competence while controlling for facial attractiveness, a factor that confounds judgments of competence (Oh et al., 2019 Psychol Sci). Without the “halo effect” of attractiveness, it was masculinity cues that strengthened the impressions of competence. This finding reveals the underlying gender biases in competence impressions. More generally, I have found that people form more simplified impressions of women than of men (Oh et al., 2019 J Exp Psychol: Gen). Impressions of women are more highly intercorrelated than those of men (e.g., there is a stronger negative correlation between likability and dominance impressions for women vs. men). Further, the simplification of impressions was more severe for those who strongly believed gender stereotypes. This is consistent with the body of literature on benevolent sexism (i.e., women are likely to be punished for not conforming to gender norms), while demonstrating that counterstereotypical traits suggested at the level of faces receive backlash. At the same time, these findings show that it is essential to consider stereotypes in social facial perception.

People have more simplified impressions of women than of men. In this plot, the level of impression simplification is indexed by the level of all pairwise correlations across specific trait impressions (e.g., impression of likeability). Each dot represents the level of correlations between a pair of impression ratings (e.g., correlation between the impression of likeability and the impression of dominance across all participants). (from Oh et al., 2020 J Exp Psychol: Gen)

Role of Economic Status Cues in Person Perception

Cues about economic status bias competence judgments. The association between status and competence is common and strong across many cultures. By pairing clothes that appeared expensive or clothes that appeared less expensive with the same faces, we manipulated the ostensible economic status of individuals. Individuals were perceived as more competent when their faces were paired with “expensive” clothes (Oh et al., 2019 Nat Hum Behav). We then employed various measures to suppress the economic-status effect, including a brief presentation duration of the person images (about 0.1 sec), instructions to ignore the clothes, and the promise of a substantial reward (100 US dollars) for the most accurate response that ignored the clothes. The economic-status effect persisted despite all countermeasures. This is consistent with previous findings showing the strong mental association between the competence and status of other individuals. At the same time, these findings provide a novel demonstration of the difficulty of reversing widely shared mental associations in perception (in this case, an association between competence and economic status). This reality challenges researchers to devise new measures to intervene with such biases.

Participants across studies rated faces paired with “richer” clothes as more competent than the same faces paired with “poorer” clothes. These participants include in-person Princeton University sample, older adults sample recruited in a mall in New Jersey, and online participants that were more diverse in age and other demographics.
a: Participants were given various measures that discouraged them to rely on the clothes while judging competence of other individuals. x=mean competence rating of a face with it is paired with “poorer” clothes, y=mean competence rating of a face with it is paired with “richer” clothes; each dot = each face.
b: Participants were promised $100 to “accurately” judge how competent each person looked (that is, completely ignore the effect of the clothes). Strikingly, this did not change the biases induced by economic status cues in the clothes. x = each face; y = mean comeptence rating; each color = economic status of clothes paired with the face.(from Oh et al., 2020 Nat Hum Behav)

Role of Other Individuals in Person Perception

The perceiver’s social environment (e.g., other people around you) biases trait judgments from faces. My research found that individual perceivers’ beliefs about personality traits predicted how they judged other individuals’ traits from faces (Oh, Martin, & Freeman, in press). For example, when a perceiver believed that other individuals that are extraverted are also agreeable, the same perceiver tended to judge a face appearing to be more extraverted as more agreeable (and vice versa). Notably, the effect was found at the regional level as well, across over 40 countries. In a country where people believed that they were simultaneously extraverted and agreeable, perceivers in the country tended to judge a face as appearing more extraverted as more agreeable. These findings suggest that people may facially perceive others’ personality based on the actual personality of people they encounter in their environment. This is consistent with previous findings showing that when making intuitive judgments, people use information acquired through social learning, highlighting the culture and personal experiences as an origin of facial impressions.