Knowledge of a person’s personality influences the perception of facial identity

Do Vladimir Putin and Justin Bieber look alike? They do this if you think they have similar personalities, a new study by a team of psychologists shows.

Its conclusions, published in the journal Cognition, reveal that knowledge of a person’s personality can influence the perception of a face’s identity and bias it towards unrelated identities. For example, if Vladimir Putin and Justin Bieber, just one of many pairs of faces tested in the research, have more similar personalities in your mind, then they look like you visually as well, even if they don’t. no physical resemblance.

Our face is another’s portal to our thoughts, feelings and intentions. If the perception of others’ faces is systematically distorted by our previous understanding of their personality, as our results show, it could affect the way we behave and interact with them. “

Jonathan Freeman, Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at New York University and lead author of the article

The other authors of the article were DongWon Oh, postdoctoral researcher in the department of psychology at New York University, and Mirella Walker, researcher at the University of Basel.

The authors add that the research sheds light on the fundamental scientific understanding of how facial recognition works in the brain, suggesting that not only visual cues of a face, but also prior social knowledge, play an active role in the perception of faces.

Facial recognition is essential to everyday life – to identify a neighbor in the supermarket, an actor in a movie trailer, or a relative in a photo. And, in recent years, it has been applied to technologies ranging from Apple’s iPhone to extensive counterterrorism and law enforcement applications – with many concerns about accuracy.

The Association for Computing Machinery called for a suspension of both private and government use of facial recognition technology, citing “clear biases based on ethnicity, race, gender and other human characteristics “. Nature reported last year.

To better understand how our own perceptions – and biases – might influence the way we recognize faces, researchers conducted a series of experiments centered on the perceptions of well-known individuals – Bieber, Poutine, John Travolta, George W Bush and Ryan Gosling, among others (Note: White males were selected to establish a racial and gender benchmark on the faces tested). Racially and ethnically diverse male and female participants were taken from “Mechanical Turk” (MTurk), a tool in which individuals are paid for performing small tasks; it is frequently used in the conduct of behavioral science studies.

Overall, they found that when a participant believed that two individuals had more similar personalities, their faces were seen to be proportionately more similar.

To provide causal evidence, the researchers determined whether the effect was valid for individuals they had never met before. Participants viewed images of other white men with whom they declared no familiarity. While participants learned that the personalities of these individuals were similar (as opposed to dissimilar), their faces were also perceived to be visually more similar.

The researchers used several techniques to assess how faces were viewed on a less conscious level. Subject responses were measured with innovative mouse tracking software previously developed by Freeman; it uses the movements of the hands of individuals to reveal unconscious cognitive processes. Unlike surveys or assessments, in which test subjects can consciously alter their responses, this technique forces subjects to make split-second decisions, thereby uncovering less conscious tendencies through subtle deviations in their trajectory. hand movement when moving a mouse during experiments. They also used a technique known as reverse correlation, which allowed researchers to generate face images depicting how participants perceived others “in the mind’s eye.”

“Our results show that the perception of facial identity is motivated not only by facial features, such as the eyes and chin, but also by the social knowledge we have learned about others, skewing it towards alternative identities. despite the fact that these identities lack any physical resemblance, ”observes Freeman.


Journal reference:

Oh, D., et al. (2021) The knowledge of the person shapes the perception of the identity of the face. Cognition.

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