Exploring  gender bias in individuals’ perception of inanimate objects.

The Man in the Moon.

Boy in the Plastic Bubble.

Man in the Mirror.

What do these titles have in common besides being cornerstone films in American cinema?

Well, for starters, all of them associate a male with an inanimate object. 

On Feb. 1 2022, in Proceedings of the National Academy  of Sciences,  researchers reported that facelike patterns in inanimate objects are more likely to be perceived as male than female. 

Utilizing more than 3800 adult volunteers online, researchers Susan Wardle, Sanika Paranjape, Jessica Tauber and Chris Baker of the National Institute of Health displayed over 250 images to the participants. These images were illusory faces from potatoes to socks to suitcases, which the participants labeled with male, female or neutral. 

The results were unforeseen. The objects were deemed to have male faces about four times as often as they were to have female ones. Additionally, both male and female participants were subject to this bias, with around 80 percent of participants labeling more images male than female. In fact, only 3 percent of participants judged more images as female than male. The remaining 17 percent of respondents distributed male and female images equally. 

Amy Nguyen, assistant professor of psychology at San Jose State University, was surprised by the results. “I expected some bias, it’s almost human to be subject to it, but, 80% leaning male is truly surprising,” Nguyen said. 

After the initial study, the researchers conducted follow-up surveys where they used the same objects, but without illusory faces. The participants did not show bias in this set of images.  While these conclusions are a bit puzzling, researchers successfully eliminated the notion that participants viewed something about the underlying objects as masculine/feminine that guided their choices.

In addition to these observations, Dr. Wardle also trained computer models that were programmed to respond to simple visual features and modify their output after getting feedback on errors. This allowed them to recognize faces with considerable accuracy. The models searched the illusory face photos utilized in the first batch for stereotypically masculine or feminine features – for example, smaller noses for females compared to larger, more protruding noses for males. However, they could not explain the bias, either.

A possible explanation could be that to see female faces in these images, additional features are required, making the former more unlikely of a classification; Luisa Rodriquez, a final year psychology graduate student at CSU Monterey Bay, agrees. “In video games, false lashes and full lips are often used to make characters appear feminine,” Rodriquez says. In fact, female Lego characters are distinguishable from their male counterparts only by these over exaggerated features. 

Colleagues of the NIH group have also conducted another study branching off this one, but with youth. The same gender bias was found in children as young as 5 years old, suggesting that this bias starts early. 

The phenomenon observed by the researchers is called Face Pareidolia. Face pareidolia is defined as the spontaneous perception of illusory facial features in inanimate objects, and can be thought of as a natural error of our face detection system.

Rachel Chan, officer at the MV Girls Empowerment Project (GEP) Club, believes the results of this study have applicability to the real world and our perception of gender. 

“It’s a symptom of a microaggression,” she states. “We automatically assume [the illusory faces] are male.”

A striking bias in gender perception can be highlighted in the results, with many more illusory faces perceived as male than female. This bias is especially significant because the illusory faces did not have a biological sex; the participants tended to assume men as the convention more than 80% of the time. Studies show that interpersonal and intrapersonal gender biases create stereotypes, making it crucial to eradicate this convention to prevent fostering stereotypes and restricting the growth of females in society. 

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