The Neurocognitive Basis of Bias Against People Who Look Different

Summary: Neuroimaging revealed when people saw an anomalous face, the fusiform gyri and amygdala showed significant neural responses. Activity in a region of the left amygdala, which correlated with less pro-social responses to the anomalous face, appeared to relate to the participant’s belief about justice in the world and their degree of empathetic concern.

Source: University of Pennsylvania

The “scarred villain” is one of the oldest tropes in film and literature, from Scar in “The Lion King” to Star Wars’ Darth Vader and the Joker in “The Dark Knight.” The trope is likely rooted in a long-evolved human bias against facial anomalies — atypical features such as growths, swelling, facial paralysis, and scars. A new brain-and-behavior study from researchers in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania illuminates this bias on multiple levels.

The researchers, whose findings were published this week in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, used surveys, social simulations, and functional MRI (fMRI) studies to study hundreds of participants’ responses and attitudes towards attractive, average, and anomalous faces. The findings clarify how the “anomalous-is-bad” stereotype manifests, and implicate a brain region called the amygdala as one of the likely mediators of this stereotype.

“Understanding the psychology of the ‘anomalous-is-bad’ stereotype can help, for example, in the design of interventions to educate the public about the social burdens shouldered by people who look different,” said lead author Clifford Workman, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher in the Penn Center for Neuroaesthetics. The center is led by Anjan Chatterjee, MD, a professor of Neurology at Penn Medicine, who was senior author of the study.

Bias against people with facial disfigurements has been demonstrated in various prior studies. Researchers broadly assume that this bias reflects ancient adaptive traits which evolved to promote healthy mate selection, for example, and to steer us clear of people who have potentially communicable diseases. Regardless the cause, for many people, their facial anomalies render them unjust targets of discrimination.

In their study, Workman and colleagues investigated how this bias manifests at different levels, from expressed attitudes towards faces, to actual behavior during simulated social interactions, and even down to brain responses when viewing faces.

In one part of the study, the researchers showed a set of faces that were either average-looking, attractive, or anomalous to 403 participants from an online panel, and asked them to rate the depicted people on various measures. The researchers found that, compared to more attractive faces, participants considered anomalous faces less trustworthy, less content, and more anxious, on average. The anomalous faces also made the participants feel less happy. Participants also acknowledged harboring “explicit bias” reflected in negative expectations about people with anomalous faces as a group.

In the other part of the study, Workman and colleagues examined moral attitudes and dispositions, the behavior during simulated social interaction, and fMRI-measured brain responses, for 27 participants who viewed similar sets of faces.

Here again there was some evidence of the anomalous-is-bad habit of thinking, though it was not clear that this translated into mistreatment of people with anomalous faces. For example, in a simulated donation game measuring pro-sociality — the willingness to be positive and helpful towards another — the participants were not significantly less pro-social towards anomalous-looking people. However, participants in the highest tier of socioeconomic status, compared to the others, were significantly less pro-social towards anomalous-looking people.

This shows a big outline of a head and brain surrounded by outlines of people
Bias against people with facial disfigurements has been demonstrated in various prior studies. Image is in the public domain

On fMRI scans, brain regions called the amygdala and the fusiform gyri showed significant neural responses specifically to anomalous faces. Activity in a portion of the left amygdala, which correlated with less pro-sociality towards anomalous faces, also seemed related to participants’ beliefs about justice in the world and their degree of empathic concern.

“We hypothesize that the left amygdala integrates face perception with moral emotions and social values to guide behavior, such that weaker emotional empathy, and a stronger belief that the world is just, both facilitate dehumanizing people with facial anomalies,” Chatterjee said.

Analyzing such responses is inherently challenging, because they involve a mix of subjective perceptions, such as the “visual salience,” or relative importance, of a face, and the “emotional arousal” elicited by seeing the face. To inform future research, as part of the study, the team used the fMRI data to clarify which brain regions are associated with these distinct aspects of the experience of seeing faces.

Additional co-authors included Stacey Humphries, Franziska Hartung, Geoffrey Aguirre, and Joseph Kable.

Funding: The research was supported by the Penn Center for Human Appearance and the National Institute of Dental & Craniofacial Research of the National Institutes of Health (F32DE029407).

About this neurocognition research news

Source: University of Pennsylvania
Contact: Hannah Messinger – University of Pennsylvania
Image: The image is in the public domain

Original Research: Open access.
Morality is in the eye of the beholder: the neurocognitive basis of the “anomalous‐is‐bad” stereotype” by Clifford Workman et al. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences


Morality is in the eye of the beholder: the neurocognitive basis of the “anomalous‐is‐bad” stereotype

Are people with flawed faces regarded as having flawed moral characters? An “anomalous‐is‐bad” stereotype is hypothesized to facilitate negative biases against people with facial anomalies (e.g., scars), but whether and how these biases affect behavior and brain functioning remain open questions. We examined responses to anomalous faces in the brain (using a visual oddball paradigm), behavior (in economic games), and attitudes. At the level of the brain, the amygdala demonstrated a specific neural response to anomalous faces—sensitive to disgust and a lack of beauty but independent of responses to salience or arousal. At the level of behavior, people with anomalous faces were subjected to less prosociality from participants highest in socioeconomic status. At the level of attitudes, we replicated previously reported negative character evaluations made about individuals with facial anomalies, and further identified explicit biases directed against them as a group. Across these levels of organization, the specific amygdala response to facial anomalies correlated with stronger just‐world beliefs (i.e., people get what they deserve), less dispositional empathic concern, and less prosociality toward people with facial anomalies. Characterizing the “anomalous‐is‐bad” stereotype at multiple levels of organization can reveal underappreciated psychological burdens shouldered by people who look different.

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