York prof researches the role of facial features in discrimination

Do people form implicit racial biases by looking at the colour of a person’s skin, their facial features or both? How are children’s attitudes and perceptions about race formed and influenced, and what is the cognitive impact of negative racial stereotyping on those targeted? York social psychology Professor Jennifer Steele hopes the answers to those questions will lead to intervention programs in schools that will boost the academic performance of children from minority groups and increase their sense of self.

As part of her research, titled "Understanding the Development and Consequences of Racial Stereotyping: A Social Cognitive Approach", Steele and her team are currently taking their laptops into schools to discover when racial stereotyping begins and what children pay attention to when forming racial biases. The next step will be to have the children come to the University’s new Interpersonal Perception and Social Cognition (IPSC) Laboratory being built in the Behavioural Science Building. The lab is expected to be up and running this summer.

As a recipient of a 2007 Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) Leaders Opportunity Fund grant of $157,931, Steele is planning to equip the lab with an eye-tracking system, which is made up of video recording and editing equipment for the purpose of identifying where children focus their attention when presented with stimuli, such as faces with varying facial features and skin colour.

"Race, gender and age. People automatically process that information, and most previous theories of impression formation suggest that this initial categorization alone significantly impacts how they will interact with that person," says Steele, director of the IPSC Lab and a professor in York’s Department of Psychology, Faculty of Health.

Most of the research so far suggests that people categorize others based solely on race while facial features don’t play a role in the categorization. However, one study from the University of Colorado, titled "The Influence of Afrocentric Facial Features in Criminal Sentencing", counters that theory. Steele found that study intriguing as she is also looking into the effects of facial features in determining racial biases and stereotyping. The US study, which looked at the length of jail sentences of prison inmates in Florida, found that regardless of whether the offenders were black or white, the ones with the most Afrocentric facial features were routinely given longer jail sentences than those with more European features, even though their criminal histories were equivalent.

Left: Jennifer Steele

According to the US Afrocentric study, the findings were consistent with the results of their laboratory research, which showed "that people use Afrocentric features to infer traits that are stereotypic of African Americans. Be they white or black, offenders who possess more Afrocentric features are receiving harsher sentences for the same crimes, compared with less Afrocentric-looking offenders".

What Steele wants to know is whether the attention to facial features in developing racial stereotypes holds true for children, and if so, when does it start? Her research will look at the implicit and explicit attitudes of children from racial minorities and majorities. One of the tools Steele will be using, in addition to the eye-tracking machine and programs designed to capture children’s response times to racially diverse faces, is computer software that will allow the colour of skin and the facial features to be changed and switched around on a variety of different faces.

"Computers and video equipment will unobtrusively record responses, while an eye-tracking machine will unobtrusively track where on the faces participants look when placing people into racial categories. This will allow us to better examine how people make use of facial features. We can see where exactly on the face they’re looking when they categorize by race," says Steele. "Then we can also ask social psychological questions, such as ‘is this person more likely to play violin or basketball’. We’ll look at the data, taking the participant’s and target’s race into consideration."

The research has important theoretical, methodological and practical implications, says Steele, because North American societies are continuing to grow more racially and culturally diverse. Knowing how racial knowledge can influence children’s attitudes and perceptions of people from similar or different racial groups, can lay the ground work for changing unacceptable stereotyping. "This research will increase our understanding of what it means to be a child from a negatively stereotyped minority group in Canada and will suggest new avenues for intervention programs aimed at increasing the academic orientation and positive self-regard of the youngest members of society." It will help children to become more academically and socially successful.

Preliminary research results of Steele’s studies in racially diverse schools with kids in Grades 1 to 6, found that non-white children, other than black children, hold the automatic stereotypical view that white children are better academically and black children are better athletes. "It speaks to the cultural information they are receiving at a very early age," says Steele.

In addition, one of Steele’s undergraduate thesis students is currently in Brunei, in south east Asia, with plans to test kids and adults in schools there to determine whether implicit prejudice towards specific groups is strictly a North American phenomenon.

Steele is also looking at the cognitive, affective and behavioural consequences on children and adults exposed to racism. Does their performance on cognitive tests decline following a negative racial interaction?

If a black participant is exposed to racial discrimination, such as a white person talking in support of racial profiling, does that black participant display a decrease in cognitive functioning afterwards? So far, research data suggests they do, with those most affected being high in what is known as racial centrality – a strong feeling of connection with one’s racial group.

And what happens when a white study participant, from a mainly non-racially diverse school, is paired with a black researcher? Is the white participant more cognitively depleted after that interaction than if they were paired with a white researcher?

Knowing how this kind of cognitive depletion plays out in academic situations and how it affects performance and academic results, could help develop programs in schools that would address these issues.

"It’s very exciting research and we’re getting some interesting information coming in," says Steele. "It feels good to know that my work has not only theoretical value, but practical value as well."

By Sandra McLean, YFile writer.