Perceptual dehumanization of faces is activated by norm violations and facilitates norm enforcement

J Exp Psychol Gen. 2016 Feb;145(2):131-46. doi: 10.1037/xge0000132.


This article uses methods drawn from perceptual psychology to answer a basic social psychological question: Do people process the faces of norm violators differently from those of others--and, if so, what is the functional significance? Seven studies suggest that people process these faces different and the differential processing makes it easier to punish norm violators. Studies 1 and 2 use a recognition-recall paradigm that manipulated facial-inversion and spatial frequency to show that people rely upon face-typical processing less when they perceive norm violators' faces. Study 3 uses a facial composite task to demonstrate that the effect is actor dependent, not action dependent, and to suggest that configural processing is the mechanism of perceptual change. Studies 4 and 5 use offset faces to show that configural processing is only attenuated when they belong to perpetrators who are culpable. Studies 6 and 7 show that people find it easier to punish inverted faces and harder to punish faces displayed in low spatial frequency. Taken together, these data suggest a bidirectional flow of causality between lower-order perceptual and higher-order cognitive processes in norm enforcement.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Dehumanization
  • Facial Recognition*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Morals*
  • Punishment / psychology*
  • Young Adult