When a face type is perceived as threatening: Using general recognition theory to understand biased categorization of Afrocentric faces

Mem Cognit. 2018 Jul;46(5):716-728. doi: 10.3758/s13421-018-0801-0.


Prior research indicates that stereotypical Black faces (e.g., wide nose, full lips: Afrocentric) are often associated with crime and violence. The current study investigated whether stereotypical faces may bias the interpretation of facial expression to seem threatening. Stimuli were prerated by face type (stereotypical, nonstereotypical) and expression (neutral, threatening). Later in a forced-choice task, different participants categorized face stimuli as stereotypical or not and threatening or not. Regardless of prerated expression, stereotypical faces were judged as more threatening than were nonstereotypical faces. These findings were supported using computational models based on general recognition theory (GRT), indicating that decision boundaries were more biased toward the threatening response for stereotypical faces than for nonstereotypical faces. GRT analysis also indicated that perception of face stereotypicality and emotional expression are dependent, both across categories and within individual categories. Higher perceived stereotypicality predicts higher perception of threat, and, conversely, higher ratings of threat predict higher perception of stereotypicality. Implications for racial face-type bias influencing perception and decision-making in a variety of social and professional contexts are discussed.

Keywords: Decision making; Face processing; Perception; Social cognition.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Black People*
  • Decision Making / physiology*
  • Facial Recognition / physiology*
  • Fear / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Social Perception*
  • Young Adult