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What’s Behind Our Snap Judgments?

An Up-and-Comer Interview with Jon Freeman

Jon Freeman
Source: Jon Freeman

Malcolm Gladwell wrote of the power of snap judgments in his book, Blink.

Jon Freeman’s research is identifying snap judgments' physiological underpinnings by integrating data from fMRI, electrophysiology, computational modeling, and even people’s micromovements with a computer mouse.

Freeman is Assistant Professor in NYU’s Department of Psychology, Director of its Social Cognitive & Neural Sciences Lab, Pacific Standard’s Top 30 Thinkers Under 30, and one of Forbes' Top 30 in Science Under 30. He is today’s Up-and-Comer interview.

MARTY NEMKO: Was there a moment you decided to get a PhD in psychology?

JON FREEMAN: As an undergrad, after months of working tirelessly, we discovered that the extent of amygdala activation while getting to know a person reflects how much you wind up liking the person. It was exciting to know something new the world didn’t yet know, and on a topic of great interest to me.

MN: Many academics suffer from the Imposter Syndrome. Did or do you?

JF: When I started grad school, I did wonder if I wasn’t cut from the same cloth as the stars training me or as the smart peers around me. That did go away, and one thing that helped is that my research drew from distant research areas. My interdisciplinary research interests—working in different areas of social psychology, vision science, fMRI, neural network modeling—have forced me to be a bit of an imposter to each of these areas---Actually that’s kind of fun.

MN: Let’s turn to your research. If I’m at a singles party, what is going on in my brain physiologically as I’m looking for someone I might want to talk with?

JF: Perhaps not surprisingly, the brain makes near-instantaneous evaluations of a face’s attractiveness. Important features include how feminine or masculine the face is, how close it is to the average of faces seen in the past, how symmetrical and healthy a face appears. Attractiveness evaluations are also affected by bodily characteristics such as the waist-to-hip ratio, posture and gait, like masculine swaggering or feminine swaying. But goals also matter. For instance, women looking for a short-term relationship tend to prefer more masculine male faces whereas those looking for a long-term relationship tend to prefer more feminine male faces. Beyond attractiveness, the brain also very quickly uses facial features to judge traits like trustworthiness, likeability, or ability. I want to stress that these are not arbitrary evaluations--subjects are highly consistent in their evaluations. They also can occur very rapidly. We’ve found that certain regions like the amygdala track how trustworthy a face is before we’re consciously aware we’re even looking at a face.

MN: Those snap judgments, say about trustworthiness, may be reliable but how valid are they?

JF:  It’s a difficult question. There is much evidence that how trustworthy or competent a face appears is predictive of a variety of objective real-world outcomes, including electoral success, career attainment, criminal sentencing. Surely this means these judgments are very important, but are they valid? There have been a few studies, at least for judgments of men, linking inferences of trustworthiness with actual trustworthy behavior or inferences of compete with levels of intelligence, for example. However, there have also been studies that report no such relationships. In general, most research suggests that these judgments are highly consistent and consequential but not necessarily accurate with respect to a person’s underlying personality. They are more a reflection of preconceived notions and learned associations.

MN: Your research finds that some people have a face that, at baseline, is angry: furrowed brow, turned-down lips. What’s a person to do if his or her face looks like that?

JF: Yes, such faces tend to be perceived as less trustworthy and likeable. At least in theory, to increase perceptions of trustworthiness it should help to turn up the lips and ensure the brow isn’t furrowed. This is because such perceptions are driven by resemblance to emotion expressions, which use facial muscles that are controllable. Other perceptions such as a person’s ability are more driven by skeletal cues, such as the facial width-to-height ratio, which cannot be changed except to tilt the head upward or downward to reduce the face’s apparent height.

MN: In job interviews, in a fraction of a second, before the interviewee even opens his or her mouth, the interviewer tends to make inferences about the person’s likely cognitive ability. Are those clearly invalid and to be resisted?

JF: People do tend to rapidly make such inferences based on a consistent set of features. And a few studies report a link between such features and level of general intelligence but some studies haven't. I suggest accepting the fact that brain makes these rapid inferences but try to be sure not to act on them. Inferences based on more controllable features such as attire may have more validity.

MN: You’ve also studied snap judgments with regard to race and gender. Let’s say I’m approaching a dark alley and on each side of the street there’s a person with identical skin tone: On one side is an 80-year-old East Indian woman and on the other side an 18-year old African-American man. What is happening physiologically as I’m deciding which side of the street to walk on?

JF: Yes, the brain rapidly perceives social categories, such as gender, race, and age, as well as emotion, and these are represented in face-processing regions like the fusiform gyrus. We are also rapidly assessing potential threats, a process for which brain regions such as the amygdala are important. Whether or not we personally endorse certain stereotypes about gender, race, or age categories, implicit stereotypical associations stored in the brain from our cultural learning tend to automatically activate in response to a face.

MN: You’ve studied how people’s brains react to people who aren’t so clearly one race or one gender. What have you learned?

JF: Yes, and it’s an important topic as the multiracial population is the fastest growing racial group in the U.S. It takes hundreds of milliseconds for the brain to settle into a given category. Initially, multiple potential categories, such as both male and female, get activated, and these must compete with one another over time to perceive race or gender. Individuals’ exposure to racial diversity also matters here, with less exposed individuals having a more difficult time perceiving multiracial faces, and this difficulty predicts less trust for multiracial people.

MN: What's next for Jon Freeman, professionally and/or personally?

JF: On the one hand, we’ve done quite a bit of research on how we categorize and stereotype others and on the other, we’ve examined how we infer traits like trustworthiness or ability. I’m excited to leverage cutting-edge methodologies to develop a new model that can unify and link these two sets of processes for a more comprehensive account of split-second social perception. And personally: Like so many people, I want to achieve better work-life balance.

Marty Nemko's bio is in Wikipedia. His newest book, his 8th, is The Best of Marty Nemko.