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Differential visual attention hypothesis: Afrocentric features, biased perception

Investigator: Thomas Malloy, Rhode Island College

Scientific Theme: Neuroscience

Abstract: A basic finding in social psychology is that people make judgments of others based on the degree to which their physical features deviate from the average features for a racial or ethnic category. Theory proposes that Blacks and Whites use skin tone, nose breadth and lip fullness (i.e. Afrocentric features) as a basis for judgments of a broad array of characteristics of Blacks. Research in the Intergroup Relations Laboratory at Rhode Island College uses eye-tracking technology to measure precisely eye movements when viewing an array of faces. When searching for the perpetrator of a crime, Whites allocated greater visual attention to Black faces with average and darker skin tones than to faces with light tones. When searching for the victim of a crime, Whites allocated greater attention to Black faces with light skin tone and less attention to those with darker tone skin. Experiment 1 is an extension of this work, and will examine the effect of three facial features (skin tone, nose breadth, and lip fullness) in combination with crime-related stereotypes on visual attention to Black faces when searching for the perpetrator or victim of a crime. Both Black and White participants will be included. It is expected that Blacks’ and Whites’ will allocate greater visual attention to highly Afrocentric Black faces when searching for the perpetrator of a crime, and will allocate greater visual attention to Black faces that are low on Afrocentricity when searching for the victim of a crime. Experiment 2 extends the focus from negative to positive group stereotypes. There should be evidence that facial features affect visual attention to them that, in turn, affects biased behavioral responses based on positive group stereotypes. The goal is to demonstrate that facial features of Blacks and Whites affect visual attention to them and is a basic mechanism in stereotyping and discrimination. If the specific facial features that lead to visual attention bias can be understood, interventions can be designed to reduce the bias and discriminatory behavior that may follow.

Human Health Relevance: Visual attention bias occurs outside of awareness, and may lead to unwitting discriminatory behavior by a health care provider. This could affect patient satisfaction, willingness to seek treatment and compliance with treatment in the patient-practitioner dyad. This research will reveal the facial features that capture visual attention and produce discrimination so that interventions to reduce bias can be developed.

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