Friday, July 17, 2009

The Illusion of Sex: Contrast and Gender Perception

Image courtesy Dr. Richard Russell, Harvard University

Interesting research in press for the journal Perception shows that a contributing factor to perceived gender of a face is merely contrast. The above image is of the same androgynous face, digitally treated to both increase (left) and decrease (right) the contrast, and the result is a change in perceived gender. Without any anatomical differences, the relative darkness of lips and eyes compared to skin change our perception, and changes our fundamental idea of what we are seeing.

This image took third prize at the visual illusion of the year contest, though the phenomenon is more than just a trick of visual perception. Recognition of things like faces (and voices) is a far more complicated process than it seems from everyday experience. Computers have a hard time with them because we use numerous shortcuts (heuristics) in our processing, which often aren’t logical to a machine (or we don’t know them yet). This image illustrates well how we take visual cues and build heuristics from the world around us, and how these shortcuts can lead us to make gross changes in perception from small changes in input. Usually this works well – imagine finding a friend in a crowded room if you had to concentrate on the face of every single person?

There is a cautionary note here. This work highlights the fallibility of our senses, and that we need to be careful to stay objective in cases where we can be fooled by what we see or hear (taste, touch, or smell?). This is especially true in cases, like advertising,  where editors may use information like this to skew our understanding or opinions. Stay vigilant. Stay skeptical. Stay classy.


marsha said...

So, just to make sure I fall into the category of "normal" and willingly making assumptions based on clever marketing, the picture on the left is more feminine, and the right masculine, right?

Shane Caldwell said...

Yep :)