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How Are “Visual Stereotypes” Beneficial and How Are They Harmful?

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Character designer David Colman talks about the who versus the what in his DVD The Art of Character Design Vol. 1. This refers to that a character designer should not only focus on what the character is; to focus on the actual design of the subject, e.g. a tiger. Nor should they only focus on who the character is, which would mean that the character depicts a lot of personality but looks like any other tiger that has been seen before.

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The stereotypes we hold can influence our brain’s visual system, prompting us to see others’ faces in ways that conform to these stereotypes, neuroscientists at New York University have found. “Our findings provide evidence that the stereotypes we hold can systematically alter the brain’s visual representation of a face, distorting what we see to be more in line with our biased expectations,” explains Jonathan Freeman, an assistant professor in NYU’s Department of Psychology and the senior author of the paper, which appears in the journal Nature Neuroscience. “For example, many individuals have ingrained stereotypes that associate men as being more aggressive, women as being more appeasing, or Black individuals as being more hostile—though they may not endorse these stereotypes personally,” Freeman observes. “Our results suggest that these sorts of stereotypical associations can shape the basic visual processing of other people, predictably warping how the brain ‘sees’ a person’s face.” Prior research has shown that stereotypes seep into the ways we think about and interact with other people, shaping many aspects of our behavior—despite our better intentions. But the researchers’ findings show that stereotypes may also have a more insidious impact, shaping even our initial visual processing of a person in a way that conforms to our existing biases. “Previous studies have shown that how we perceive a face may, in turn, influence our behavior,” notes Ryan Stolier, an NYU doctoral student and lead author of the research. “Our findings therefore shed light upon an important and perhaps unanticipated route through which unintended bias may influence interpersonal behavior.” The research relies on an innovative mouse-tracking technique that uses an individual’s hand movements to reveal unconscious cognitive processes—and, specifically, the stereotypes they hold. Unlike surveys, in which individuals can consciously alter their responses, this technique requires subjects to make split-second decisions about others, thereby uncovering a less conscious preference through their hand-motion trajectory.

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As communication systems reach nearly every corner of the world, mass media matters more than ever since it influences how people see and understand themselves and others in the world. As a powerful social force that makes the most of visual, audio and textual techniques, it has the capacity to shape civil society, its discourses, policies, and the built environment all around us (Schiller, 2014). A larger issue has to do with the fact racial minorities are not adequately represented in traditional mainstream media (Castañeda, Fuentes-Bautista, & Baruch, 2015). The limited media diversity not only creates limited understanding of the social world, but can also produce real violence, and thus the “significant risk” that was noted above. It is important to acknowledge that the capacity of the media to stereotypically (mis)represent minorities is tied to the history of colonialism and exploitative labor in the U.S. (Castañeda, 2015). Consequently, by marginalizing non-white communities, dominant structures can write these communities out of history as well as hinder their capacity for political-economic agency.

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To summarize, the fundamental structure of social categories when perceiving a face can become warped by social-conceptual knowledge that binds ostensibly unrelated categories together. Thus, although stereotyping has long been considered a consequence of initially perceiving others via categories, our stereotypes can affect even our initial categorizations.

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Mari Castañeda. (2018). The Power of (Mis)Representation: Why Racial and Ethnic Stereotypes in the Media Matter. In Hortencia Jiménez (ed.), Challenging Inequalities: Readings in Race, Ethnicity, and Immigration. San Diego, CA; Cognella Press

Castañeda, M., Fuentes-Bautista, M., & Baruch, F. (2015). Racial and ethnic inclusion in the digital era: Shifting discourses in communications public policy. Journal of Social Issues, 71, 1, 139-154.

Omi, M., & Winant, H. (1994). Racial formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s. New York: Routledge.

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How Are “Visual Stereotypes” Beneficial and How Are They Harmful?
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