NYU psychology professor Freeman receives NSF CAREER Award to study ‘stereotypic vision’

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Jonathan Freeman, an assistant professor in NYU's Department of Psychology and Center for Neural Science, has received a National Science Foundation CAREER award, which will support research aimed at gaining new insights into "stereotypic vision"–how unconscious stereotypes change what we see with our eyes.

Freeman applies methods from cognitive neuroscience, psychophysics, and social psychology to understand how the brain forms split-second perceptions of other people. Under this grant, Freeman's lab will study how unconscious stereotypic associations infiltrate the brain's visual system to create systematic distortions in how a face or object is perceived, producing a phenomenon of "stereotypic vision". Freeman was previously named a "Rising Star" by the Association for Psychological Science and one of the top 30 scientists under 30 by Forbes Magazine.

CAREER awards are the National Science Foundation's most prestigious award for junior faculty and are designed to help provide a foundation for a lifetime of scientific leadership. The awards are given to outstanding scientists who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through research, education, and the integration of education and research. Freeman's grant is for five years and approximately $785,000.

The research relies on an innovative mouse-tracking software Freeman developed that uses individuals' hand movements to reveal unconscious cognitive processes. Unlike surveys or ratings, in which test subjects can consciously alter their responses, this technique requires subjects to make split-second decisions, thereby uncovering less conscious tendencies through subtle deflections in their hand-motion trajectory. Freeman's lab will link the millimeters of movement of a subject's mouse cursor to brain-imaging data using a cutting-edge neural decoding approach that, when combined together, will be able to discover stereotypes' otherwise hidden impacts on how the brain visually represents a face or object.

Freeman's previous research has shown that the stereotypes we implicitly hold can influence our brain's visual processing, prompting us to see others' faces in ways that conform to those stereotypes. Under the NSF grant, Freeman and his colleagues will explore the brain mechanisms that allow such stereotypic associations to infiltrate the visual system, determine to what extent they operate without our awareness or control, and gauge their flexibility by exploring techniques to reduce stereotypic impacts on visual processing.

The grant will also support Freeman's broader efforts to train the scientific community on the mouse-tracking technology for better investigating many types of unconscious cognitive processes in the brain. It will also support efforts to leverage the technology for new platforms for the general public that aim to raise public awareness of unconscious biases and their visual impacts, and help develop strategies to reduce them.

"By distorting the brain's visual representation in line with stereotypic associations, this subtle form of visual bias may serve to only further entrench our already existing stereotypes," Freeman explains. "By better understanding the mechanisms underlying stereotypic vision and their flexibility, this research could help pave the way for new and more effective techniques to reduce or possibly eliminate unconscious social biases."

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