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Integrating categorical cues into impressions of faces

Although people often believe that they do not “judge a book by its cover,” facial characteristics (e.g., relative trustworthiness) and categories (e.g., race) pervade everyday decisions. Because people automatically activate categorical stereotypes (e.g., Black males are untrustworthy), these stereotypes may unduly impact how people integrate categorical cues into impressions and cloud effects of more individuated appearance cues from facial characteristics (e.g., attractiveness). This automatic aspect of person perception may inform why certain social group memberships negatively impact impressions and perpetuate intergroup tensions despite declining explicit prejudice. The lab has assessed this possibility by testing the impact of group membership on person perception.

Integrating behavioral cues into impressions from faces

Appearance-based cues, such as the extent that facial characteristics signal trustworthiness, clearly impact person perception. However, it is unclear if appearance cues are so important that they override explicitly evaluated behaviors. A second aspect of the lab's research thus regards the impact of combined appearance-behavior cues on forming and remembering impressions. A key focus of this work regards if certain cues impact impressions more than others. For instance, how an actor looks may have a stronger impact on impressions than how the actor behaves. In turn, this unequal weighting may influence many actions toward that actor, from a perceiver’s initial approach motivation to complex decisions like voting.

Understanding dynamic person perception

Defining person perception as complex and dynamic suggests its malleability. As shown by the lab's categorization work (e.g., Cassidy et al., 2017), not everyone perceives others in the same way. One way differential perception across individuals may emerge is through motivation to process certain cues over others. Comparing person perception across age offers an excellent way to address this possibility. Unlike non-social domains, social cognition is fairly stable with age. Older and younger adults differ, however, in their motivation to process social information. Older adults focus on more meaningful and positive information, whereas younger adults focus on knowledge acquisition. Established motivational changes in aging allow for us to study and understand how different contexts and cue content affect person perception mechanisms. This line of work is of particular public health relevance. Because older adults are especially vulnerable to fraud, identifying contexts most impactful to older adults’ evaluations and decisions may be particularly important in developing decision-making strategies to optimize older adults’ quality of life.

Diverse Methodology at UNCG

To best characterize behavioral and neural mechanisms underlying person perception, research in the lab takes a multi-level approach. Alongside traditional behavioral work, the lab is equipped to conduct mouse-tracking and eye-tracking studies to capture different aspects of person perception. The lab also has access to the Gateway MRI Center, which houses a 3T MRI scanner. Ongoing neuroimaging research in the lab involves cutting-edge connectivity methods to gauge how the brain gives rise to social cognition.