Academic Research Overview
First impressions matter. Indeed, anyone who has attended a job interview, a theater audition, or a blind date can attest to the often profound implications of split-second judgments others make about us. Despite their importance, first impressions are also subject to numerous biases that affect social behavior. These biases have far-reaching implications, guiding everything from romantic partner selection to criminal sentencing and political elections. Especially when they are negative, first impressions can have deleterious consequences.
I seek to understand how and why first impressions become negatively biased. What are the proximal processes that cause people to form prejudiced evaluations of others on the basis of limited information? And what are the downstream implications of these evaluations for social life? My program of research unites theory from social psychology, cognition, and vision science to offer new answers to these classic questions. This integrative approach stands to provide theoretical knowledge about the building blocks contributing to social life as well as practical strategies for curtailing prejudice and its negative impacts. See below for a brief description of ongoing research projects.
1) Sensory Adaptation
Researchers have long known that perception is plastic. For example, after gazing at an object moving in one direction for an extended period of time, stationary objects will appear to drift in the opposite direction of the original motion. Check out the video on the right for an example.
Video demonstration of sensory adaptation to motion.
The process by which current perceptions are biased by recent experience is referred to as sensory adaptation. Sensory adaptation is ubiquitous, impacting low-level perceptions of motion, color, brightness, smell, pitch, and volume. In one line of research, I have extended these findings to higher-level social perceptions, asking whether and how past experience alters our perceptions and evaluations of other people. My colleagues and I have found that perceivers readily adapt to social category information contained in the face, body, and voice. For example, after being exposed to highly masculine male faces, perceivers rate a gender-neutral face as appearing distinctly feminine. These higher-level adaptations emerge rapdily and unconsciously, with as little as five seconds of exposure being sufficient to bias the perception of subsequently encountered targets. Moreover, adaptation is important because it guides evaluative judgments of unknown others. Indeed, we find that adaptation to a given feature causes that feature to appear more normative. Normative features in turn garner favorable evaluations, such that sensory adaptation leads to positive evaluations of people with features we see frequently but negative evaluations of people with features we see infrequently. Thus, sensory adaptation provides a broad and generalizable framework for understanding how past experience guides evaluative preferences. We are currently testing whether visual adaptation can be harnessed as a tool not only for understanding preference formation, but also for reducing prejudice against underrepresented groups.
2) Processing Fluency
On any given day, you are confronted with hundreds of other people, many of whom you don't know. Most of those people are likely to be benign, but others may be threatening in one way or another. Lacking detailed information, how can you tell who is a friend and who is a foe? Recetly, my colleagues and I have been developing and refining a theory of processing fluency to explain split-second social evaluations. Fluency is the subjective sensation of ease that accompanies a given judgment, where fluent processing is quick, effortless, and "easy on the mind" whereas disfluent processing is slow, effortful, and "hard on the mind." Drawing on classic work from memory and cognition, we argue that fluency acts as a heuristic indicating familiarity with another person. People with whom we are familiar will be easy to process, leading to a subjective sense of certainty that garners positive evaluations. On the other hand, people with whom we are unfamiliar will be relatively difficult to process, leading to a subjective sense of uncertainty that garners negative evaluations. This account suggests that marginalized social groups may experience prejudice because their features are uncommon, atypical, and difficult to process. A series of recent empirical studies provide support for these hypotheses. In particular, we found that sexual prejudice is driven by the fact that lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) people are perceived to be gender-atypical relative to their straight peers. Gender atypicality leads to slight disfluency when categorizing LGB peoples' sex and gender, which is directly associated with sexual prejudice. Thus, while fluency may be a useful heuristic for impression formation, it can give rise to prejudice when applied indisicriminately. We are currently extending these findings to other groups to provide a better understanding of fluency's impact on social judgment.
3) Biases in Social Categorization
Social psychologists have long argued that social categorization -- the act of sorting others into meaningful groups (e.g., race or sex) -- is a critical precursor to prejudice. Simply noticing that a person belongs to a stigmatized social group is sufficient to unleash stereotypical knowledge and prejudiced evaluations that contribute to discriminatory behavior. Although early research provided a number of clues about the psychological and perceptual processes contributing to social categorization, the literature tended to treat social categorizations as truthful representations built from cues present in the target of perception. My third line of research questions that assumption, demonstrating that social category judgments are biased by numerous factors originating within both the target and the perceiver. In several studies, I have found that perceivers have overlapping stereotypes about certain social identities. For example, perceivers tend to stereotype Black, old, and male individuals as realtively masculine and Asian, young, and female individuals as relatively feminine. Such overlapping stereotype content can bias social category judgments, such that Asian targets are perceived as younger than Black targets due to their apparent femininity. Higher-level psychological factors among perceivers also bias social categorizations. In particular, I have found that perceivers' egalitarian motives alter their likelihood of assigning others to stigmatized groups that are visually ambiguous. Indeed, ongoing studies have revealed that perceivers tend to categorize unknown others as belonging to the dominant, non-stigmatized group when judging perceptually ambiguous identities (e.g., religion, politics, sexual orientation). This bias is related to individual differences in concern for others’ well-being, such that perceivers high in those concerns give targets the benefit of the doubt by assuming they belong to a non-stigmatized group. Altoghether, this work questions assumptions in classic theories of person perception, suggesting that bias is prevalent in social categorization.
4) Health Consequences of Prejudice
Male face morphed from Asian to White to Black.
Male face morphed from untrustworthy to trustworthy.
Female body morphed from BMI = 14 to BMI = 48.
Schematic depiction of point-light display.
The research described above examines prejudice from the perceiver's perspective, asking how and why people form negative impressions of others at zero acquaintance. Increasingly, I have become interested in the target's perspective. Together with colleagues in public health and social policy, I have developed a theoretical framework for understanding how prejudice "gets under the skin" to affect physical health outcomes among sexual minority individuals and their straight allies. The theory describes how deeply interconnected bio-psycho-social systems enable prejudice experiences to accumulate over the lifespan, taking a physical toll on the body that ultimately results in health disparities. As such, this work highlights not only the presence of LGB health disparities, but also the mechanistic pathways giving rise to them. We are currently conducting experimental manipulations to test the causal impact of prejudice on immediate physiological functioning and ultimate health outcomes for stigmatized individuals.
Figure 1 from Lick, Durso, and Johnson (2014). Conceptual model illustrating proposed mechanisms underlying LGB physical health disparities.