We’re always dreaming big and finding ways to keep moving forward with our passion projects here at Passion Passport. We started the Storyteller Series to bring thoughtful travelers and storytellers to our HQ in NYC each month. Our first three events tackled travel photography with three talented women, meaningful storytelling with journalist Neil Shea, and visual storytelling with Mickela Mallozzi.

Last night, we hosted Dr. Jon Freeman, an assistant professor of psychology and neural science at New York University, and mentor on our Passport Express program in 2015. Dr. Freeman studies how bias influences our split-second perceptions about other people.

We pulled the best quotes from his presentation to recap the event.

The Importance of Faces

“Over millions and millions of years, the human brain evolved to solve certain problems. You may not have realized, but one of the biggest problems we evolved to solve is how to detect and understand a mind.

Minds, more than anything else, affect our daily life and our wellbeing. Minds think, minds feel, minds act, interact, behave with us — they’re our friends, our family members, our Tinder dates, our enemies, our competitors.

But the problem, as we all know, is that minds are invisible. We can’t directly infer another person’s mental state, intentions, personality traits, emotions, feelings, etc. Nevertheless, across the course of this evolution … the human brain developed highly specialized and dedicated mechanisms for extrapolating all sorts of internal characteristics from the most minimal cues.”

“Study after study, since the 1970s or so, has shown that the face is really special and if you give a visual stimulus to the brain, the brain really privileges a face. The brain recognizes the face more accurately and more efficiently than any other type of visual information. We do this to decide who’s going to harm us and who’s going to help us. Different interactions might lead to help and positive interactions and others might lead to harm and things we want to avoid.”

“Faces are so important that we see faces in clouds, and we’ll see faces in weird broomsticks, and we’ll see faces in electrical outlets … It seems that there is this hard-wired innately specified propensity to process faces.”

Universal Emotions

“A century ago, in the 1870s, Darwin started exploring the idea that there are particular expressions of emotion we can see in non-human primates and we can see in humans. These particular expressions of emotion were argued to be universal and we can go anywhere in the world and find certain non-human primates and humans that display these particular emotions.”

“Although we tend to think of humans as so special because of their complex emotional life, ironically emotions are some of the things that tie us most to our evolutionary past.”

“It’s very clear that this measure of brain size, of newer aspects to the brain of these different species, shows a very strong, positive association with the mean social group size. And what this suggested was the idea that the human brain is so evolved because it allowed for general problem solving and general intelligence and that spilled over into our complex social lives.

But it’s actually the reverse. It may be that the human brain developed because we had to figure out how to cooperate or compete with other people, to deceive other people or understand their intentions and outwit our peers, or to cooperate and form these elaborate kinship networks … and then that bled over into general intelligence. What this suggests is that we have a uniquely social brain and we may have dedicated mechanisms that are uniquely social in nature.”


Intention, Ability, and Bias

“A lot of work has suggested that, when we initially encounter another person, there are two different things we want to figure out and these have been argued to be universal. That’s, “what is their intention?” and, “what is their ability?” These are presumed to be two different, independent judgments we want to make.”

“More specifically when we talk about face perception and the kinds of personality inferences you make from that perception, we’re talking about trustworthiness (which is the dimension of intentions — is this person good or bad?) and dominance (which is ability — what are the capabilities of this person?). There are particular facial cues associated with these.”

“There has been a lot of research finding that these inferences — whether someone looks trustworthy or untrustworthy — can predict certain political electoral outcomes for both male and female politicians, and criminal sentencing outcomes (including capital punishment).”

The Influence of Multi-Cultural Exposure

“How can we reduce and eliminate these kinds of unconscious biases? That’s a question many researchers have been asking for a very long time. One opportunity that Zach and I have been considering, and research has only recently been looking at, is the role of travel in shaping the brain in ways that can reduce bias and make us more open-minded.”

“There have been very recent studies that have tried to look at the role of travel, or multicultural exposure, and how that changes bias. … What people have found is that if you expose someone to one other culture, it does not reduce unconscious bias.

It’s actually simultaneously juxtaposing multiple cultures that leads to reductions in unconscious bias.”

“It’s a fairly intuitive idea that travel experiences will make us more open-minded, and what this research has done is suggested that [travel] creates what is called an epistemic unfreezing. … Through multi-cultural exposure and travel experiences, you will become more open-minded and less cognitively rigid.”

“From our perspective, travel, or multi-cultural exposure, has a lot of promise and a lot of work to be done. It’s a very different mechanism for reducing bias that holds promise, especially in the current political and cultural climate.”


We would love for you to join us for our next Storyteller Series event! Sign up for our weekly newsletter to find out about our upcoming events and join the community.

Photographs by the Passion Passport staff. Visuals provided by Jon Freeman.