People tend to make harsher character judgments about individuals with facial anomalies, which is reflected in neural responses, according to research published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. The findings suggest a brain region called the amygdala plays a role in dehumanizing people with facial anomalies.
“The use of visible facial differences, like scars, as visual shorthand for moral corruption is widespread in popular media — the writers of 2008’s The Dark Knight, for instance, instructed that the Joker be shown in ‘sweaty clown makeup [that obscures] the awful scars which widen his mouth into a permanent, ghoulish smile.’ A movie for kids provides perhaps the most egregious example: Disney’s The Lion King tells its young viewers that ‘Scar’ is synonymous with ‘bad guy,’” said study author Clifford I. Workman, a postdoctoral fellow in the Penn Center for Neuroaesthetics.
“I wondered whether the negative expectations about people with visible differences present in popular media might also be present in average people when interacting with people who look different. Our research shows that people are indeed biased against people with facial anomalies (what we call the ‘anomalous-is-bad’ bias), that anomalous faces activate part of the brain linked to both aesthetic and moral cognition, and that dehumanization may be the mechanism that underpins the ‘anomalous-is-bad’ bias.”
In the study, 403 participants viewed a series of photographs of human faces that were either average-looking, attractive, or anomalous and rated their impressions of each person in the photograph. The researchers also used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine the neural responses of 27 participants who viewed similar sets of faces.
People with facial anomalies tended to be viewed as less attractive, less content, and more anxious than people with beautiful and average-looking faces. People with facial anomalies were also viewed as less trustworthy than people with beautiful faces. In addition, participants expressed explicit biases against people with facial anomalies as a group, judging them to have more negative traits — such as being more sad, more incompetent, more undesirable, more awkward, and more unmotivated.
There was some evidence that the anomalous-is-bad bias affected real-life behavior as well. Participants completed a dictator game, a common measure of prosocial behavior in which people are given the power to share a small amount of money with a stranger or keep it all for themselves. Participants of the highest socio-economic status were less likely to share the money with strangers who had anomalous faces compared to strangers with typical faces.
“We tend to have negative attitudes about people with visible facial differences, even though most of us have limited chances to form those negative attitudes. It’s therefore important that we challenge this tendency, and that we check our behavior to make sure we aren’t treating people poorly just because they look different,” Workman told PsyPost.
After analyzing fMRI data, the researchers found that the amygdala and the fusiform gyri exhibited altered neural responses to anomalous faces. Activity in a portion of the left amygdala, which correlated with less pro-sociality towards anomalous faces, also seemed related to stronger beliefs in a just world (i.e., people get what they deserve) and lower levels of empathic concern.
“We hypothesize that the left amygdala integrates face perception with moral emotions and social values to guide behavior, such that weaker emotional empathy, and a stronger belief that the world is just, both facilitate dehumanizing people with facial anomalies,” explained Anjan Chatterjee in a news release.
But the study — like all research — includes some limitations.
“One major caveat is that we looked across different kinds of facial anomalies, rather than looking for specific effects related to one specific kind of anomaly,” Workman explained. “Because of this, we can’t disentangle whether one type of anomaly or another is more likely to trigger the ‘anomalous-is-bad’ bias. In fact, to run this study, we had to build a new database of faces with visible differences that wasn’t previously available to researchers (see: “The Diversity Problem in Face Research“). Future research must distinguish between different kinds of anomalies to get a better sense about what kinds of anomalous features drive the negative biases we’ve detected.”
“How can we resist succumbing to the anomalous-is-bad stereotype in everyday life?” Workman added. “Ultimately, we hope that our findings will inform future outreach, education, and intervention aimed at alleviating the social penalties experienced by people who look different.”
The study, “Morality is in the eye of the beholder: the neurocognitive basis of the ‘anomalous-is-bad’ stereotype“, was authored by Clifford I. Workman, Stacey Humphries, Franziska Hartung, Geoffrey K. Aguirre, Joseph W. Kable, and Anjan Chatterjee.