Research

My research investigates social perception and cognition with a strong focus on social context. I am particularly interested in intergroup influences on social perception and the consequences of such perceptions on downstream behavior and outcomes for both perceiver and target.

Facial Information in Social Judgments. I am interested in how facial information affects social perception, judgments and decision-making. The influence of facial information is strong and pervasive, and it can have disturbing consequences. For instance, people overgeneralize perceptions of trustworthiness to situations that should not necessitate trust. In one recent set of studies, I found that convicted murderers who look untrustworthy were more likely to be sentenced to death than murderers who look more trustworthy (Wilson & Rule, 2015). Strikingly, this occurred even among a set of innocent defendants who were convicted but later exonerated.

I have also found that people are more likely to punish untrustworthy-looking people in economic decision-making tasks. In this work, people are more likely to reject unfair offers from untrustworthy-looking partners in the Ultimatum bargaining game. In this work, facial information influences punishment even in the context of explicit behavioral information (Wilson, Chartier, & Rule, under review).

Racially Biased Perceptions of Physical Size and Formidability. In other recent research, I found that White perceivers give inflated estimates of the height and weight of Black male targets based on facial photographs, relative to White male targets of the same absolute physical size (Wilson, Hugenberg, & Rule, under review). Furthermore, I found that racially biased judgments of physical size and strength may play a role in perceptions of others’ capability for causing physical harm. Interestingly, even Black perceivers overestimated the physical size of Black targets relative to White, but the link between perceived size and harm capability was limited to White perceivers. These biased judgments of physical formidability ultimately predicted the extent to which people justify the hypothetical use of force. Critically, biased formidability perceptions were related both to bottom-up qualities of the face (i.e. Afrocentricity) as well as top-down racial information (i.e. labels on ambiguous bodies).

Own-Race Bias in Memory. In one line of work, I investigate the own-group bias in face memory. Ingroup members are typically recognized more accurately than outgroup members, and this seems to be driven at least in part by the extent to which ingroups are more likely to fulfill important social needs for the perceiver. Although people tend to show better memory for ingroup members than outgroup members, I have found that threats to the distinctiveness of one’s ingroup can result in diminished memory for Own-Race faces (Wilson & Hugenberg, 2010). I have also shown that memory for outgroup members is moderated by expectations about the frequency of interpersonal interactions with group members (Wilson, See, Bernstein, Hugenberg, & Chartier, 2014). I have also found that people tend to be betterat remembering untrustworthy-looking faces of both own- and other-race targets (Wilson & Rule, under review), although this may be moderated by the nature of the target group (Wilson & Rule, in prep). I have also made recommendations to policymakers regarding how to reduce other-race eyewitness misidentifications (Wilson, Bernstein, & Hugenberg, 2013).

Perceptions of Political Candidates. In another line of work, I have investigated how perceptions of political candidates are moderated by perceiver identities. In one paper, I found that perceptions of political candidates’ party affiliations are moderated by perceivers’ political ideology, and that perceiver ideology also moderates trait inferences from facial information (Wilson & Rule, 2014). I also found that, although perceivers are better at predicting electoral outcomes from politicians’ faces if the politicians are from the same culture as perceivers, that biculturals’ ability to make such predictions is moderated by acculturation (Wilson & Rule, under review).