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Racial Biases in Face Judgment- When You “Look” Criminal

By Carlie Hoffman

Image courtesy of Pixabay
Racial bias can, and often does, occur in several elements of the criminal justice process, including on initial police contact, during eye-witness identification, and in jurors’ decisions. This disparity of how people are treated throughout the justice system is likely influenced by the criminal black male stereotype that pervades our American culture (1). Some propose that this stereotype originated in the slavery and post-slavery eras, with the onset of Jim Crow laws and other post-slavery codes that instigated segregation and also sanctioned racially-biased punishments for blacks, and especially for black males. Racially-biased punishments are still present today, with a 2015 article in Slate magazine citing that black Americans are more likely to have their cars searched, to be arrested for drug use, to be jailed while awaiting a trial, and to serve longer sentences for the same offense as white Americans.

The presence of racial bias in the criminal justice system is irrefutable, and investigation into the elements fueling this bias has recently moved into the realm of neuroscience. In last month’s Neuroethics and Neuroscience in the News talk, Dr. Heather Kleider-Offutt from Georgia State University explained that not all black men are stereotyped in the same way. Instead, certain black men are subject to a higher degree of negative bias than other black men, and inclusion in this select subgroup is based on face-type and not skin color alone.

What is this face-type that engenders such a high degree of negative bias? In her article, “Black Stereotypical Features: When a Face-Type Can Get You in Trouble,” Kleider-Offutt stated that research participants judged faces with so-called “afro-centric” or “stereotypic” features as being more threatening than faces with non-stereotypic, or “atypical” black features. Previous studies performed in Kleider-Offutt’s lab also found that faces with afro-centric features were judged as being more criminal, aggressive, and violent than atypical faces, regardless of facial expression or attractiveness. This bias against afro-centric features also extended beyond the boundaries of race and sex: both white male and female faces with afro-centric features were viewed as being more aggressive than atypical faces (2). Kleider-Offutt explained that there is no particular feature or even a specific combination of features that underlies this negative bias. Instead, it is a combination of several features, such as full lips, a wide nose, eye color, coarse hair, and a dark complexion, that work together to influence face-type judgment. She further posited that these stereotypical features may represent the prototypical black male face and thus may more strongly elicit the criminal black male stereotype.

Decision makers in the legal system are also prone to this face-type bias: males with stereotypic features are given harsher sentences (including having a higher probability of being given the death sentence if convicted for murder) and are more vulnerable to misidentification for a crime than males with atypical features (2-4). One study performed by Kleider-Offutt’s group, which she also demonstrated for our audience, involved showing participants a series of stereotypical and atypical faces that were paired with certain careers (artist, teacher, and drug dealer). The study results indicated that a stereotypic face was more likely to be misremembered as a drug dealer than an atypical face. Similarly, people with stereotypic faces were more likely to be correctly remembered as drug dealers than were people with atypical faces. This effect held true for men and women as well as for black and white people with stereotypic features, indicating that the negative bias was associated with stereotypic features in general instead of solely with race or sex (2). Results were varied in our audience, with some members stating that they felt, understandably, self-conscious about shouting out answers openly in the group.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Alarmingly, this bias is difficult to suppress. Kleider-Offutt discussed a study that had participants read biological descriptions of people and then showed the participants a series of faces. Participants were told to avoid using race- or feature-based stereotyping as they judged whether the biological descriptions they read could have been about one of the faces they saw. Some participants also performed a secondary task while making these decisions, which introduced a “cognitive load,” or mental burden. The study found that when participants were not cognitively loaded, they were able to avoid making race-biased decisions. However, even without a cognitive load, participants were unable to avoid making feature-biased judgments. Thus, feature-bias was still present even when the participant was consciously attempting not to use it, indicating that this bias was both difficult to overcome and seemingly unavoidable (5). Furthermore, Kleider-Offutt pointed out that she and others have found that this bias is not just restricted to white participants, but is also seen in black participants (2).

Taken together, these studies indicate that bias against stereotypic facial features is engrained in our culture so much so that it has become almost a knee-jerk reaction. But, if everyone is biased, what should we do about it?

Integral to answering this question is understanding the fact that we, as Americans, are not born with a bias against stereotypic features. Instead, we are culturally conditioned to respond to stereotypic faces in a negative way. We have been taught, through our society, to perceive some faces as being threatening and others as neutral. But, because we have been taught both implicitly (and, unfortunately for some, explicitly) to think in such a way, this means that our bias is not inevitable and can be avoided–with effort on both the individual and the societal level.

For too long, our culture has associated black men (specifically) and people with stereotypic features (generally) with criminal behavior. This association between stereotypic features and criminality is perpetuated in part through the media and in part through the way in which we talk about black males and crime. This engrained bias has altered how we as a society interact socially, criminally, and legally with black men and with all people with stereotypic features. Thus, to start reducing and eventually removing these race- and feature-biases, we need to be more mindful of the way in which we talk about and present black males, people with stereotypic features, and other disenfranchised groups in the media and with each other. Furthermore, we need to start replacing stereotypes, engaging in counter-stereotype-imaging and perspective taking, and exposing ourselves to people from races, cultures, and perspectives beyond our own. Such techniques have been successfully used to reduce racial bias (6) and may also be able to reduce our bias against stereotypic features.

Moving forward, remember that we are not born this way (contrary to what Lady Gaga would say), and we are also not helpless products of our sociocultural environment. By being aware of our cultural bias against stereotypic features, we can now start working on changing our culture, taking pause with our biased responses, and challenging the automatic assumptions we make about individuals solely based on their face or skin color.


1. Smiley C, Fakunle D. From “brute” to “thug:” the demonization and criminalization of unarmed Black male victims in America. J Hum Behav Soc Environ. 2016;26(3-4):350-66. doi: 10.1080/10911359.2015.1129256. PubMed PMID: 27594778; PMCID: PMC5004736.

2. Kleider HM, Cavrak SE, Knuycky LR. Looking like a criminal: stereotypical black facial features promote face source memory error. Mem Cognit. 2012;40(8):1200-13. doi: 10.3758/s13421-012-0229-x. PubMed PMID: 22773417.

3. Blair IV, Judd CM, Chapleau KM. The influence of Afrocentric facial features in criminal sentencing. Psychol Sci. 2004;15(10):674-9. doi: 10.1111/j.0956-7976.2004.00739.x. PubMed PMID: 15447638.

4. Kleider HM, Knuycky LR, Cavrak SE. Deciding the fate of others: the cognitive underpinnings of racially biased juror decision making. J Gen Psychol. 2012;139(3):175-93. doi: 10.1080/00221309.2012.686462. PubMed PMID: 24837019.

5. Blair IV, Judd CM, Fallman JL. The automaticity of race and Afrocentric facial features in social judgments. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2004;87(6):763-78. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.87.6.763. PubMed PMID: 15598105.

6. Devine PG, Forscher PS, Austin AJ, Cox WT. Long-term reduction in implicit race bias: A prejudice habit-breaking intervention. J Exp Soc Psychol. 2012;48(6):1267-78. doi: 10.1016/j.jesp.2012.06.003. PubMed PMID: 23524616; PMCID: PMC3603687.

Want to cite this post?

Hoffman, C. (2016). Racial Biases in Face Judgment- When You “Look” Criminal. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from


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