Making Sense of Pat

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

By Wray Herbert

Fans of the old Saturday Night Live will remember skits about the androgynous Pat. Pat’s formless body and non-descript clothes offered no clue about gender. Nor did Pat’s behavior, and the running joke was that the celebrity guest hosts would go ridiculous lengths to figure out if Pat was a man or a woman. They always failed.

The skits were funny in part because Pat defied a deep-seated urge to put people into tidy pigeonholes—to stereotype. Pat wasn’t aggressive in a stereotypical male way, and Pat wasn’t particularly caring in a stereotypical female way. Pat was just Pat.

We all trade in stereotypes every day, whether we like it or not. It’s how we sort an impossibly complex world into manageable categories: man, woman, Italian, Chinese, lawyer, engineer. Stereotypes can be unfair and hurtful to many people, but the power of stereotyping is undeniable. It’s a fact of the human psyche.

But what exactly is going on in the mind when we stereotype someone? Is the process instantaneous and automatic, or do we deliberate over traits and categories before making judgments? A clever new study of the actual internal process of stereotyping—from basic perception to judgment—offers some provocative findings.

Tufts University psychologists Jonathan Freeman and Nalini Ambady used many common stereotypes, including gender stereotypes, to explore a new theory about the cognitive mechanics underlying caricatures. Here’s the basic idea: When we catch sight of a stranger’s face, we immediately begin to extract information: That’s no problem if it’s the Marlboro Man or Betty Crocker, but most of us aren’t archetypal icons of our gender. Most humans are somewhere in between, so our immediate perception is usually more tentative: “He’s probably male.” This tentative perception in turn triggers a tentative stereotype: "He’s likely to be aggressive." In other words, our perceptions and categories are not crisp and fixed, but rather in dynamic flux. It takes a few seconds for this ambiguous impression to stabilize into a final interpretation of the stranger.

At least that’s the theory, which the psychologists decided to test in the lab. To do so, they morphed photos of men and women into amalgams of male and female traits, some more ambiguous than others. None were as baffling as the fictional Pat, but they were deliberately ambiguous—like in the real world. Then they used an innovative lab technique to explore the cognitive processing of these faces: Instead of scanning their brains, they tracked their hand movements. They flashed the photographs on a screen, and instructed the volunteers to move a mouse rapidly toward one of two adjectives—for example, “aggressive” and “caring”—in opposite corners of the screen. The psychologists tracked the computer mouse movements to see how quickly and directly they categorized each face by stereotypical traits.

The idea here is that the hands have a mind of their own, in the sense that movements reflect the mind’s hesitation and conflict. The results were fascinating. An instantaneous stereotype would be a straight line from the starting point to one of the two adjectives—male, therefore aggressive, no hesitation. Nobody did that. Instead the movements appear as curves, suggesting some hesitation and deliberation in each judgment.

But here’s the really interesting part, reported on-line this week in the journal Psychological Science: The more ambiguous the face was, the more curved the path to judgment. That is, a male face with female traits might ultimately be judged as male and therefore aggressive, but not before the volunteer’s hand was tugged a bit toward the alternative stereotype of caring female. It’s like the mind is saying: Yeah, probably aggressive, but what about those nurturing features? What do I make of those? It’s as if the perceived gender ambiguity triggers a cognitive “competition” between incomplete and contradictory stereotypes, which persists until the mind settles on one or the other.

This is more than just a clever experiment, Freeman and Ambady believe. Even though the cognitive ambiguity is active only for an instant during the stereotyping process, those few seconds of contemplating life’s ambiguity may undermine our mind’s rigid categories—and have lasting effects on social judgments and behavior way down the line.

For more insights into the quirks of human nature, visit the “Full Frontal Psychology” blog at True/Slant. Excerpts from “We’re Only Human” also appear regularly at and in the magazine Scientific American Mind.

posted by Wray Herbert @ 4:52 PM


At 9:45 PM , Blogger sandy,phd said...

Is there any research linking this fuzzy melange or cognitive competition to negative mood states? Irritation or fear, for example, when one is unable to determine one of two opposing categories?