Continuous dynamics in the real-time perception of race

Continuous dynamics in the real-time perception of race

Journal of Experimental Social Psychology
Volume 46, Issue 1 (January 2010)
pages 179–185
DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2009.10.002

Jonathan B. Freemam Assistant Professor of Psychological & Brain Sciences
Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire

Kristin Pauker, Assistant Professor of Psychology
University of Hawaii

Evan P. Apfelbaum
Kellog School of Management
Northwestern Univeristy

Nalini Ambady, Professor and Neubauer Faculty Fellow
Tufts University

Although the outcomes of race categorization have been studied in detail, the temporal dynamics of realtime processing of race remain elusive. We measured participants’ hand movements en route to one of two race-category alternatives by recording the streaming x, y coordinates of the computer mouse. Study 1 showed that, when categorizing White and Black computer-generated faces that featurally overlapped with the opposite race, mouse trajectories showed a continuous spatial attraction toward the opposite category. Moreover, these race-atypical White and Black targets induced spatial attraction effects that had different temporal signatures. Study 2 showed that, when categorizing real faces that varied along a continuum of racial ambiguity, graded increases in ambiguity led to corresponding increases in trajectories’ attraction to the opposite category and trajectories’ movement complexity. These studies provide evidence for temporally dynamic competition across perceptions of race, where simultaneously and partially-active race categories continuously evolve into single categorical outcomes over time. Moreover, the findings show how different social category cues may exert different dynamic patterns of influence over the real-time processing that culminates in categorizations of others.

…The second important difference between dimensions of sex and race is the inherently fuzzy nature of race relative to the substantially less fuzzy nature of sex. Whereas it is rare to encounter faces that are truly sex-ambiguous—an unlikely situation usually evoking anxiety, a few laughs, or both (e.g., Saturday Night Live’s androgynous ‘‘Pat” skits)—perceivers often encounter faces that do not fit squarely into any race category at all. Interactions with mixed-race individuals, for instance, involve the perception of faces that tend to  contain major physiognomic overlap between multiple traditionally-distinguished race categories. Prior research indicates that, even in instances of extreme racial ambiguity (e.g., mixed-race faces), perceivers readily resolve this ambiguity by slotting faces into traditionally-distinguished race categories (Pauker et al., 2009), particularly during rapid categorization (Peery & Bodenhausen, 2008). In the present work, we wanted to determine how this resolution of racial ambiguity is accomplished in realtime.  Because perceptions of race can be fuzzy and involve different levels of ambiguity, this gave us the opportunity to examine how graded increases in the ambiguity of a social category may have corresponding graded effects on the real-time evolution of social categorical responses…

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