Study: White conservatives show racial bias in face detection

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New psychological research published in PLOS One provides evidence that a person’s ideology is associated with basic perceptual processes — in this case, detecting a human face.

The study examined two ideological traits: Right Wing Authoritarianism, a personality trait that describes the tendency to submit to political authority and be hostile towards other groups, and Social Dominance Orientation, a measure of a person’s preference for inequality among social groups. The researchers found that the former predicted a racial bias in face detection.

“Like many, I am interested in being helpful in understanding the causes of discrimination,” explained Amelie Bret of Grenoble Alps University, the study’s corresponding author. “In my research, I focus on individuals’ attitudes towards different ethnic groups. Although the link between attitudes held toward members of a social group and discrimination is well documented, it is yet unclear how these attitudes develop over time.”

“More recently, I conducted studies in which I experimentally created attitudes. The aim is to point out a general psychological mechanism, that is not restricted to a given social group, but rather generally observable in individuals, independently of their affiliation but related to personality traits. In any case, I want my research to be embodied in societal issues.”

“I have both a fundamental (isolate general psychological mechanisms) and an applied (understand then reduce discrimination) perspective. I like the idea that research can be useful even in its fundamental side.”

In the study, 67 white participants from France were asked to detect faces within arrays of neutral objects on a computer screen. The faces were either white or North African.

The researchers found that participants with higher Right-Wing Authoritarianism scores had delayed response times for detecting North African compared to white faces. Surprisingly, Social Dominance Orientation appeared to have no significant effect.

“Our research team observed that conservatism is linked with some kind of attentional disengagement toward members of different social groups,” Bret told PsyPost. “The more conservative a person is, the less attention she will pay to a member of another social group. What may be the most interesting is that it appears to occur at a very early perceptual stage.”

“I would like, however, to point out that we should always be careful with the conclusions we make with these kind of studies,” she added. “What I want to say is that differences do exist in face detection depending on conservatism. In other words, our hypothesis is that socio-political ideologies may foster some attentional disengagement. Importantly, attentional disengagement could also foster ideologies, or even unknown factors could have an impact both on ideologies and disengagement.

“What I do not want to say is that these differences are fixed and that they determine (discriminatory) behaviors. We cannot propose these conclusions yet.”

The study has some limitations, mainly concerning its small sample size. It also used a cross-sectional methodology, preventing the researchers from drawing inferences about cause and effect.

“There are always some caveats, in any research,” Bret explained. “We think that here, the priority is to replicate the results with a bigger sample of participants, with a bigger variety of their origins.”

“Another important thing is that it is a study without experimental manipulation (we only measure variables, we do not provoke them), as such the causality of conservatism on face detection is not demonstrated. We now aim to manipulate the conservatism in order to see its real (causal) implication in the process.”

“This research is sensitive because of political concerns. It is important to mention that we are not here to express a judgment but only to understand what’s happening.

“Also, as I said before, I think it is always important to keep in mind that nothing is fixed,” Bret concluded. “As always, our studies present limitations. We want to be cautious with our own results and we are working to improve the reliability of the conclusions. Scientific evidence is important in order to improve our knowledge about discrimination and political ideologies. However, it is also important to differentiate what comes from the data, what is uncertain, and what is in the domain of opinion.”

The study, “Right wing authoritarianism is associated with race bias in face detection“, was also co-authored by Brice Beffara, Jessica McFadyen, and Martial Mermillod.

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