Berlin plan #3: Instant social knowledge through unconscious perception

So I think I’ve figured out the third and final intervention I want to run for the cognitive science safari I’ll be leading in Berlin on the 11th of July. Regular readers will recall that I first wanted to try a field test of the change blindness phenomenon, and to follow that up with an exercise in contaigous attention. For my final trick, I’m going to try something which demonstrates how rapidly, and successfully, we can make unconscious judgements about people.

There’s a powerful demonstration of this that I experienced thanks to Professor Jon May during my undergraduate degree. Jon showed the class black and white photos of middle aged men and women and asked us to judge if they were American or British. There were no obviously clues, no cowboy hats, no uniforms or flags. Just boring pictures. If you had of asked any of us in the class we would all have said that we had no idea who was American and who was British. It just wasn’t possible to be sure, but we all guessed and – of course – at the end of the demonstration we found out that we’d mostly been right. It’s an important demonstration that we often have access to information that we aren’t fully aware of or certain about. We couldn’t make judgements on explicit criteria, but instead relied on a perceptual intuition. Without realising it, we’d been trained by experience to associate certain things – styles of haircut? certain facial features? clothing? who knows – with the different nationalities.

So it seems that throughout our lives we’re building up tacit knowledge of how we expect different kinds of people to look. This effect isn’t just for nationalities. Famously, it also seems to work for things like sexual orientation. This is a remarkable paper :Brief exposures: Male sexual orientation is accurately perceived at 50 ms. As the title suggests, it shows that people were able to judge at above chance rates if someone was straight or gay merely from a photo of their face shown for a twentieth of a second. It’s not quite instant, but it shows that even the briefest of flashes can contain a surprising amount of information. You can try a version of this experiment yourself, thanks to the wonders of the internet, with the “Gay? or Eurotrash?” game (via this neurocritic post).

What I’d like to try in Berlin is a demonstration of this phenomenon, but for geography. Using the group of people on the tour, I will find willing volunteers from around Berlin and ask them where they come from. Then we’ll ask the tour to try and guess, through a series of Yes/No answers like “Is this person a European?”, “From Germany?”, “From Berlin?” and so on. Through what has been called the wisdom of crowds we should be able to take the average guess of those on the tour to come up with a more accurate judgement than any one of us will individually produce. The fun will be in seeing how often we are able to judge someone’s hometown from no more than how they look.

7 thoughts on “Berlin plan #3: Instant social knowledge through unconscious perception”

  1. I’m really intrigued by your cognitive science safari! πŸ™‚ Good luck and I hope you’ll report on what you will have found.

  2. I’m curious about how the test would work with people who aren’t of the obvious races associated with various countries.

  3. I scored about zero on the gay/eurotrash game, and I’m really bad at face recognition – wonder if that’s related?

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