In Brief

People make stereotyped judgments based on others' Afrocentric facial features so automatically that even pointing out and asking them to avoid their bias still fails to stop them, says a study in December's Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 87, No. 6).

The study's authors, University of Colorado psychology professors Irene Blair, PhD, and Charles Judd, PhD, and former undergraduate Jennifer Fallman, now a graduate student at the University of California, Los Angeles, previously found that people judge others on such factors as behavior, intelligence and skills based on their Afrocentric facial features--such as full lips or a wide nose--as well as on their race. When people considered facial features in their judgments, they viewed others--both white and black--with more Afrocentric features as more athletic and aggressive. Such traits conform to African-American stereotypes.

Concerned that study participants typically monitor themselves to consciously avoid presenting racial biases, the researchers tested whether people consciously can control their judgment of others based on facial features as easily as they can judgments based on race.

To do so, the researchers presented 40 yearbook faces--20 white and 20 black--to 74 undergraduates. The students, 93 percent of them white, read one of four brief descriptions of a person--positive or negative and with or without stereotypically African-American attributes. For example, the negatively portrayed, stereotyped example lived in urban Detroit, attended college on a basketball scholarship and had a drug charge. Conversely, the positively portrayed counterexample was a Harvard premed student and classical music fan.

After reading a description, the students looked at the 40 faces and rated how likely each was the person described. Participants repeated the process for all four descriptions.

Remarkably, participants matched stereotypically African-American descriptions to faces--both black and white--that had Afrocentric features, despite explicit instructions not to and even though they had demonstrated in a prior task that they could easily identify the relevant features.

"The results suggest this behavior is not like race-based judgments; it's not something most people think about," Blair says. "This stereotyping is very automatic. Unlike race-based stereotyping, when people try not to do it, they still do."

Why? Blair says the cause might be that facial features are more nuanced and harder to spot than race, so people find it harder to consciously monitor their judgments.

"The facial cues are more complex," she says. "With race, it's a two-option cue--you are either white or black, for example. But Afrocentric features present multiple cues that create degrees of stereotyping within different racial groups. That makes finding a solution more difficult."

The findings have practical, yet unfortunately bleak, implications, Blair says. In another recent study, she found no difference in sentence length among white and black Floridian felony offenders. However, judges sentence inmates with more Afrocentric facial features within each race to longer stints in prison.

What's worse, Blair says, is that because this bias occurs so automatically, "Even if this message to avoid biases associated with Afrocentric facial features were sent to police officers, judges and so on, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to immediately put into practice."

However, social awareness can reduce the problem, much as it has mitigated a significant amount of race-based prejudice during the past 50 years, Blair says, and understanding the role of feature-based stereotyping in social judgment is an important first step.