Harvard Medical School Study Ties Societal Gender Inequality to Perceptual Bias Against Women

A new study by researchers at Harvard Medical School suggests that country-to-country variations in sociocultural dynamics — notably the degree of gender equality in each — can yield marked differences in men’s and women’s ability to recognize famous faces.

The study found that men living in countries with high gender equality — Scandinavian and certain Northern European nations — accurately identify the faces of female celebrities nearly as well as women. Men living in countries with lower gender equality, such as India or Pakistan, fare worse than both their Scandinavian peers and women in their own country on the same task. U.S. males, the study found, fall somewhere in between. The United States ranks in the middle of the pack on the United Nation’s Gender Inequality index.

The authors suggest that men living in countries with low gender equality are prone to cognitive “lumping” that obscures individual differences when it comes to recognizing female faces. The researchers say the pronounced own-gender bias among males is a variation of other forms of perceptual bias that have been documented in past research. For example, research shows that people tend to overlook interpersonal variations in the faces of people from races other than their own — the so-called “other race” effect.

Joseph DeGutis, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and senior author of the study, stated that “our study suggests that whom we pay attention to appears to be, at least in part, fueled by our culture, and how and whom we choose to categorize varies by the sociocultural context we live in.”

The full study, “Gender Differences in Familiar Face Recognition and the Influence of Sociocultural Gender Inequality,” was published on the website of Scientific Reports. It may be accessed here.

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