Imagine you’re sitting outside, taking in the scenery. You notice a small animal flying through your sight line.
If you’re like most people, your brain categorizes what you saw — “bird” — and moves on to the next thing to catch your attention.
If you’re an expert bird-watcher — someone who’s spent years learning the subtle differences in calls, colors, and movement of birds in a narrow region of the world — you might discern a bright green and light gray plumage and instantly know you’re looking at a chestnut-sided warbler.
Our brains are constantly processing stimuli, often before we’re conscious of it. It’s a complex process that our brains manage by quickly categorizing the multiple pieces of information that come in. It saves brain power.
That’s why the brain of a novice bird-watcher might categorize only as far as “bird.” Another with a little more experience might notice a flash of red, go a level deeper, and register “cardinal.” The expert birders have trained their brains to move beyond broad categorizations and make fine-level distinctions — often in the same amount of time.
Cindy Bukach, a cognitive neuroscientist and associate professor of psychology, believes there might be something to learn from these variations in cognitive processing, particularly in the labels our brains generate when we look at each other.
“The way we interact with the world depends on how we categorize things in our environment,” she says. “And one example of that is the way we categorize faces.”
With few exceptions, all faces are fundamentally similar, she explains. We have two eyes, a nose, and a mouth. Beyond that, the differences are subtle; eyes may be a millimeter closer or further apart; lips can be plump or pencil thin. For our brains, recognizing an individual person is a highly demanding, multi-step process.
“It’s very expensive, cognitively,” Bukach says. “I can’t just say, ‘You have this particular type of arched eyebrow, and therefore, I know you’re Kim.’ I can’t just say, ‘You have brown eyes; you must be Kim.’ I can’t just group people into these categories; I have to take multiple pieces of information together.”
But the way our brains process information behind the scenes can surprise us and may feel at odds with how we understand our values.
To demonstrate how our brain categorizes things, Bukach places a cup on her desk in Sarah Brunet Hall and asks me to tell her what I see.
“If you couldn’t use the words pens, pencils, or scissors, how would you describe them?” she asks.
At this point, we’ve been talking about the neural processes of facial recognition for nearly an hour. I know where she’s going with this.
“I see long cylinders,” I say, trying to dodge the answer I know she’s looking for. But I can’t avoid it. “I see brown and white and blue.”
“Right,” Bukach says. “I’m thinking of one of these in particular. Ask me some questions to narrow it down.”
“Is it taller or shorter?” I ask. Again, I’m stalling.
Again, I’m stuck.
“What color is it?”
“OK!” she says. “So you can see how color, you don’t realize how important it is, but it’s absolutely critical.”
We certainly process faces more holistically than we would a pen or a pair of scissors, but the results aren’t universal. Research has shown that we do a better job categorizing and identifying the faces of people of our own race. We even recognize emotional intent — whether someone is happy, worried, confused, or angry — more accurately within our own race.
This psychological phenomenon has a name: the other-race effect.
“Even though race is a social construct,” Bukach says, “it comes from the way our neural system has developed to do rapid categorization so that we can make determinations of how to act in the world.”
Back to those birders she’s studying. When it comes to the faces of people we perceive to be our own race, we’re like expert bird-watchers, registering subtleties. But across races, we’re often more like a novice brain, the one that just registers, “bird.”
“In some ways,” she says, “you can look at face recognition and the other-race effect as a failure to transfer our expert face recognition skills because we’ve been mostly exposed to our own race.”
The effect can include both explicit and implicit bias. Explicit bias is overt racism, which occurs during conscious processing. It’s a way of seeing the world and acting in it. Think hood-wearing Klan members or someone who bases a hiring decision on an applicant’s race. Implicit bias is unconscious attitudes and beliefs that shape our interactions and responses, often without our knowledge. In a normal situation, the brain detects the features of a stimulus in about 170 milliseconds and, by 300 milliseconds, usually categorizes it.
Debating the links and differences between explicit and implicit bias isn’t something left to academics. It was recently a point of national conversation following an exchange during the first presidential debate in the fall.
Moderator Lester Holt asked Hillary Clinton, “Last week you said we’ve got to do everything possible to improve policing to go right at implicit bias. Do you believe that police are implicitly biased against black people?”
“Lester, I think implicit bias is a problem for everyone, not just police,” Clinton replied. “I think, unfortunately, too many of us in our great country jump to conclusions about each other. And therefore, I think we need all of us to be asking hard questions about, you know, ‘Why am I feeling this way?’”
In the days that followed, Donald Trump fired back. Clinton, he said, suggested that “everyone, including our police, are basically racist and prejudiced. How can Hillary Clinton try to lead this country when she has such a low opinion of its citizens?”
The debate continued, but the two sides were talking past each other, as they had over so many issues in the election, adding more heat than light. For Bukach, the right questions to ask are much more nuanced. It’s not enough for her to know that an other-race effect exists. She wants to know when in the cognitive processing stream it occurs and what factors influence how quickly, accurately, and precisely we’re able to categorize and identify faces.
“I want to know, is it a low-level perceptual process, or is it more in the decision-making realm?” she says. “Is it when their experience or attitudes come into play?”
A number of factors — such as our environment, past experiences, and emotional state — could come into play at any point in the cognitive processing stream. One example is what Bukach calls the experience factor, or how our relationships with people of other races influence our cognitive processing abilities.
It's not enough for her to know that an other-race effect exists. Bukach wants to know when in the cognitive processing stream it occurs and what factors influence how quickly, accurately, and precisely we're able to categorize and identify faces.
Studies, which are almost always conducted in Western cultures, show that the other-race effect is stronger among Caucasians, who are typically in the majority. They’re not only better at recognizing individuals among people of their own race than of other races, but they’re also more likely to perceive anger in the neutral face of a black person.
Bukach tests the exposure factor using a combination of cognitive tasks and electrophysiology. A subject is briefly presented with an image of a face, and then asked to rate the intensity of the emotion they perceive. This task establishes a baseline of behavior in what is ultimately a multi-stage research process. In subsequent steps, subjects are attached to an ERP cap that maps the brain’s activity while they rate the emotions they see.
“Putting these two together — the electrophysiology and the cognitive task — I can identify not only what influences our performance, but when in the cognitive processing stream those factors are having an impact,” she says. “We’re not aware of how we’re processing all of the stimuli in our environment, just like we’re not aware of digestive processes or how we’re regulating our heartbeat. With electrophysiology, I can get a millisecond resolution of how brain activity is changing.”
When it comes to the question of exposure, she’s found that simply seeing a variety of races isn’t enough to improve our categorization and identification skills. Rather, it’s the quality of our relationships with people of backgrounds different from our own that’s more influential.
“I could ask, ‘How many people of other various types of races did you go to school with?’” Bukach says. “That’s not as good of a predictor as asking, ‘How many of your best friends are from other races? How often do you eat meals with other-race individuals? How often do you have discussions and engage in social activities with other-race individuals?’”
While much of Bukach’s research is still in early phases, she already knows a few things. Racial bias exists. We are better at identifying people and interpreting emotion when we’re looking at a person from our own race. And the consequences of incorrectly categorizing people and intent have the potential to be catastrophic.
Take the July 2016 shooting of Philando Castile on the outskirts of St. Paul, Minnesota. An officer radioed a nearby squad after seeing Castile driving past. The officer thought he looked like the suspect of a robbery, noting “his wide-set nose.” After two officers pulled the car over and asked him for his ID, Castile told the officers he was legally carrying a firearm. When Castile reached for his wallet, one of the officers told him to stop and then shot and killed him. Investigators later acknowledged that he was not the robbery suspect.
Investigations are still pending, and lawyers and investigators have plenty of questions. But a psychologist like Bukach would have her own. Was the officer who reported a suspicious vehicle primed to misidentify Castile because of the other-race effect? Was the officer who shot more likely to interpret malicious intent when Castile reached for his wallet because of his millisecond interpretation of Castile’s facial expression? Did the officers’ brains process information in ways influenced by past interactions and experiences on the job differently for Castile than they would have for someone of their own race?
Did these factors influence the officers’ behavior before they were even aware of them? Very possibly. Research shows that a stressful or threatening situation — like a traffic stop — can shift cognitive processing into a vigilance mode. This means our early perceptual processing and detection of threats is significantly enhanced, but our evaluation of information in later cognitive stages is compromised.
Bukach says no single factor can tell us whether we are susceptible to the other-race effect or whether bias will impact our behaviors.
“It’s going to be a combination of perceptual ability, attitudes, experiences, context,” she says. “All of these things are important. It’s a multi-factor equation.”
But by pinpointing the millisecond, or combination of milliseconds, in the cognitive process where bias is occurring, she hopes to influence training for people working in fields such as law enforcement, health care, and education. Bias training exists in many of these areas, but she says it has often been developed without knowledge about where, precisely, bias problems arise and without assessment mechanisms to see whether the training is even working.
One example she cites is bias in how educators behave toward students in the classroom. If her research reveals promising results for locating the sources of bias and potential for behavior training, she hopes to recruit local teachers for a pilot training program.
“These are biases that people may or may not be aware of, but we have statistics and the evidence to show that there is bias in the system,” she says. “There isn’t an educator who would embrace bias and say there should be bias in the system. We have a hard time recognizing it in ourselves because no one wants to think that they’re biased.”
Bukach also hopes to create mechanisms for studying the long-term effects of anti-bias training programs. Studies have shown that when subjects are informed about the other-race effect, they tend to show less bias. Some indicate that putting a subject in a positive mood reduces bias, while increasing anxiety increases bias. Still others look at how training subjects to recognize individuals — meaning they see warblers instead of just birds — can improve their perceptual skills. All of these tests offer only short-term assessments, though; no one knows if the outcomes still hold days, weeks, or months later.
These are still hypotheses for Bukach, with answers to come after years of “searching for the holy grail of, ‘What can we do to permanently make a difference?’” In the meantime, she says, we need to have conversations that acknowledge the existence and influence of racial bias.
“The problem is that in so many contexts, we’re not thinking about it, and we’re not monitoring ourselves in that way,” Bukach says. “I think we need to have these open discussions where we stop being defensive. We can’t say, ‘Bias exists, but I’m not biased.’ That’s not going to work. We have to start to say, ‘Our visual system is built to be biased.’ We have to get beyond grouping someone into a category and actually see someone for who they are. This is what we tend to do for our in-groups, because we rapidly identify them as belonging to the same category that we do. Then we can move quickly and rapidly to individuating. The trick is getting our system to do that regardless of race. It takes an effort.”