New Study Examines How People Respond to Faces of Different Races

There is an exhaustive amount of research that focuses on how people perceive facial expressions of others within their race and other races. Less attention has been focused on which parts of the brain are activated when this process occurs. Tawanda M. Greer of the Department of Psychology at the University of South Carolina helped fill this void in literature by conducting a study that compared the neural activity of white Americans and African-Americans in a facial perception task. Greer used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to measure brain activity while the participants looked at pictures of same- and other-race faces in states of happiness, anger, or neutral states. Greer asked the participants to rate the trustworthiness of the faces in order to measure how neural processing related to threat evaluation. She also considered prior racial events and prejudice that the African-American participants had experienced when analyzing her data.

Greer discovered that when evaluating happy faces, African-Americans rated the happy and neutral faces of other African-Americans as the most trustworthy, while the white people rated the happy African-American faces as more trustworthy than happy faces of other whites. Although interesting, this could be due to a heightened sense of deception and suspicion that can be associated with a forced smile. Greer also found that the participants rated angry African-American faces as more threatening than angry white faces. Both groups agreed that angry African-American faces were the least trustworthy of all the faces.

When Greer looked at the MRIs, it was revealed that the whites and African-Americans had different patterns of neural activity during the tasks. The whites had more activation in brain regions linked to cognitive capacity and conflict resolution, while the African-Americans had more brain activity in regions that are involved in memory and emotion. Greer believes that the presence of a prior negative interracial experience, which predicted African-American responses of mistrust to neutral white faces, could be represented in the activation of emotional regions of the brain. The images Greer used, which included faces in health care settings and legal environments, were designed to be personal in nature in order to capture meaningful responses. She hopes that this research will be useful in arenas that require social cue processing, especially within the context of personal matters, such as health care settings. “Our findings suggest that race and cultural background should be examined as important contributors to social perception and decision-making in future imaging studies,” she added.

Greer, Tawanda M., Jennifer M. Vendemia, and Melita Stancil. Neural correlates of race-related social evaluations for African-Americans and white Americans. Neuropsychology 26.6 (2012): 704-12. Print.

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  • Holly


    November 26th, 2012 at 3:46 PM

    I’m pretty sure the perceptions depend heavily on our past experiences.At least for me that is definitely true. Also, it is for the same reason that many people form their prejudices about others just by seeing them. If person A looks like person B, then it is easier to think A will be similar to B in other aspects as well. Anybody experienced such perceptions?

  • Paulie


    November 26th, 2012 at 4:13 PM

    This does show many of the depths of racial prejudice that still exist. Why do we automatically give angry black faces a higher score on being more dangerous than you would an angry white face? Why is an angry black man still so threatening even when there is no proof that this is reality? I am telling you, reading stuff like this just makes me so angry to think that this is something that my own kids are still gonna have to contend with. We may say that we have come so far, but not really.

  • MJ


    November 27th, 2012 at 4:02 AM

    You might think that you have oversome those preconceived ideas about people of different races, but I think that this study tells the story. Internally, your reactions don’t lie.

  • Nadia


    November 27th, 2012 at 1:09 PM

    All of us have pre conceived notions about people from another race,religion,culture,or even another part of the same country.There is just no denying that. And while faces can be deceiving I think the real test would be looking someone in the eye and then looking at your perception. that would give a better insight into this.

  • Carla Richards

    Carla Richards

    November 27th, 2012 at 4:44 PM

    The only way for us to move forward is to have positive interactions with people of other races and ethnic backgrounds so that they are no longer seen as being different, just normal everuday occurrences. It is hard to overcome something that is very deep seeded when you really never have to opportunity to learn anything any different about others.

  • sebastian


    November 28th, 2012 at 11:26 AM

    I’m sure the results would be different for different sample groups.This is more of an individual thing than fact.If you’ve grown up with and interacted with people from different races the results would be much more uniform with pictures of people from all races than for someone who had a very narrow interaction group in their life.

  • marquis


    January 30th, 2013 at 12:11 AM

    Interesting. I still do not understand the whole angry black faces thing. People get angry any race gets angry and don’t see how it became a stereotype of the ABW/ABM. As far as an angry face is concern, any race with an angry face would have me thinking what is going through their minds.

    It’s like saying white people don’t get angry and aren’t threatening, yes they get angry/pissed off like anybody else. I have seen black people in the streets with angry faces like they are pissed off daily same with whites and anybody else.

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