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. We are 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, we 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. Follow-up work showed that the sentences that convicted murderers received corresponded with sentences levied by naive observers who had access to no information other than facial photographs, and that perceived trustworthiness mediated this correspondence (Wilson & Rule, 2016).

Racially Biased Perceptions of Physical Size and Formidability. In other recent research, we 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, 2017). Furthermore, we found that racially biased judgments of physical size and strength may play a role in perceptions of others’ capability for causing physical harm. Ongoing work in the lab is investigating how race-based “size bias” may unfold in face-to-face interactions.

Intersections of Multiple Social Identities. We’re also interested in how important social identities, such as race, may interact with other social identities, such as sexual orientation, to impact social judgments. In one project, we’ve been investigating the facial traits that people associate with leadership perceptions, finding that people see the “face of a leader” quite differently depending upon that person’s race (Wilson, Remedios, & Rule, 2017). Specifically, Black men are seen as better leaders to the extent that they have a particularly “warm” facial appearance, and that such judgments are linked to sexual orientation.

Own-Race Bias in Memory. We have also been investigating 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, we have found that threats to the distinctiveness of one’s ingroup can result in diminished memory for Own-Race faces (Wilson & Hugenberg, 2010). We 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). We have also made recommendations to policymakers regarding how to reduce other-race eyewitness misidentifications (Wilson, Bernstein, & Hugenberg, 2013).