Contextual modulation of biases in face recognition

Felisberti, Fatima Maria and Pavey, Louisa (2010) Contextual modulation of biases in face recognition. PLoS ONE, 5(9), ISSN (online) 1932-6203


Background: The ability to recognize the faces of potential cooperators and cheaters is fundamental to social exchanges, given that cooperation for mutual benefit is expected. Studies addressing biases in face recognition have so far proved inconclusive, with reports of biases towards faces of cheaters, biases towards faces of cooperators, or no biases at all. This work attempts to uncover possible causes underlying such discrepancies. Methodology/ Findings: Four experiments were designed to investigate biases in face recognition during social exchanges when behavioral descriptors (prosocial, antisocial or neutral) embedded in different scenarios were tagged to faces during memorization. Face recognition, measured as accuracy and response latency, was tested with modified yes-no, forced-choice or recall tasks (N = 174). An enhanced recognition of faces tagged with prosocial descriptors was observed when the encoding scenario involved financial transactions and the rules of the social contract were not explicit (experiments 1 and 2). Such bias could be eliminated or attenuated with priming and if participants were made explicitly aware of the moral status tagged to faces ("cooperators", "cheaters" or "neutrals"; experiment 3). Further, in a scenario describing a wide range of salient behaviors, recognition of antisocial and prosocial faces was similar, but significantly better than neutral faces (experiment 4). Conclusion: The results highlight the relevance of descriptors and scenarios of social exchange in face recognition, when the frequency of prosocial and antisocial individuals in a group is similar. Recognition biases towards prosocial faces emerged when descriptors did not state the rules of a social contract or the moral status of a behavior, and they point to the existence of broad and flexible cognitive abilities finely tuned to minor changes in social context.

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