Jon Freeman, an assistant professor of psychology and neural science at New York University, studies how bias influences our split-second perceptions about other people. In advance of the fourth iteration of Passion Passport’s Storyteller Series, Jon talked with us about his work and if there is any connection between his research and travel.

How did you find your way into the field of neuroscience?

Since high school, I was always interested in the interplay of biology and psychology. I remember reading a lot of these clinical psychology, old Freudian books that were outdated and not based in science but were interesting in terms of the inner-workings of the mind. I was very interested in what the physiological basis was of certain aspects of mental and emotional life.

I took a college course in physiological psychology during my senior year of high school and that really got me interested because it showed me the multiple levels of analysis — seeing the biological basis of psychology and how [that biology] can inform our understanding of psychology and the mind.

What do you study?

I’m a social neuroscientist, and specifically I study how the brain extracts information about other people, how it forms snap judgments, and how the baggage we bring to the table (our own stereotypes and biases, conscious or unconscious) influences our very initial perceptions and reactions to other people.

Can you explain your research?

We use a variety of brain and behavior based techniques to understand split-second social perceptions. We’ll use techniques like brain-imaging and electrophysiology (electrical potentials from the scalp) to gain insight into what areas of the brain are involved in a particular process or what the timing of those processes is. I also developed a computer mouse tracking software, which allows us to get more unconscious levels of perception and initial reactions to other people.

Something that’s been known for a while is that, despite the conscious expression of bias, most liberal-minded individuals will report egalitarian attitudes and openly support social justice and equality of women, racial, and LGBTQ minorities. But when you use certain techniques to look at more unconscious levels of bias, you often find that people do express a degree of unconscious bias that is culturally acquired. Unfortunately, these kinds of unconscious levels of bias can predict behavior, discrimination, and prejudice against minorities in spite of people’s conscious and self-reported attitudes. That’s a real problem, and a much research for the past few decades has sought to better understand this schism, including possible interventions to reduce or eliminate unconscious bias. For example, a lot of companies use this kind of research to attempt to reduce bias. There are of course many other domains of application as well, such as in police departments.

In my lab, something we’re particularly interested in is how those kinds of biases, unconsciously, can change our visual reality and change the way that the visual system in the brain perceives another person’s face to be more consistent with stereotypes. For example, an individual who implicitly harbors stereotypical associations that African-Americans are more hostile and linked to crime and violence might, in the visual system of their brain, misperceive an African-American face that’s smiling and happy as a little bit angrier and more hostile than it actually objectively is. Or, a harmless object in the context of an African-American man may be misperceived by the visual system as a gun, facilitating incorrect and extremely consequential decisions, especially in split-second moments of high emotional arousal such as what might occur in the context of a police encounter with unarmed racial minorities.

How has this research impacted you personally?

Other than made me slightly neurotic?

I mean, it’s a focus on unconscious aspects of behavior. So I often think about that and am often very attuned to how people express themselves nonverbally. Obviously interviewing someone or going on a first date — those kinds of settings are really interesting. But, and there’s research showing this, you really need to allow these processes to unfold spontaneously. As soon as you start “impression managing” or trying to regulate yourself and overthink it, it’s going to lead to disastrous social interactions.

It’s certainly shaped my thinking on everyday life.

What is the relationship between social neuroscience and travel?

One kind of work we do is a variety of cross-cultural brain imaging, in which we’ll compare different cultures and see how they respond to different kinds of cues and how culture shapes the brain. Obviously travel involves a lot of exposure to different cultures.

I think travel is, from a psychological perspective, a conduit to exposure and learning and acculturation of different environments. That shapes the brain. I think that’s where social neuroscience comes in.

Travel is a little bit too loose of a term, in our field we’d call it, perhaps, “multicultural exposure.” In a few studies, that kind of multicultural exposure has been shown to increase various measures of open-mindedness. It’s the very intuitive idea that travel makes you more open-minded and breaks down mental barriers. And there is some recent empirical evidence supporting that.

Those changes in open-mindedness and cognitive complexity actually predict reductions of bias against different kinds of cultures and races, recent work finds. That’s a very different kind of mechanism underlying bias reduction than we typically see with the sort of interventions researchers have tried to do in the lab. This highlights a very promising avenue to explore in future research, if having substantive experiences with multiple cultures changes one’s cognitive style and increases open-mindedness in ways that can reduce implicit levels of bias.

But the reality is that there has been very little research done on travel, or multicultural experience or exposure, and the brain. But given the implications for changes in the way one thinks and positive consequences of reductions in implicit bias, it would be fruitful to explore further, including at the level of the brain to better understand exactly what the impacts are.

Are there any interactions you’ve had while traveling that stand out to you?

For a summer, I went to Beijing to collect brain-imaging data. This was a local experience — there was no staying in mainstream hotels, this was living and working with other students and really getting a sense of their life. It wasn’t a nice, polished exchange program.

In my opinion, what inspires a lot of people in the West to travel is this idea of individualism. You want to be your own person, and you’re going to explore the world on your own as a pioneer. It’s a very American, Western individualistic concept.

By contrast, it was really striking to see firsthand more collectivistic and interdependent individuals in East Asian societies like in Beijing. For them, it’s really about bolstering the group rather than the self. The kinds of things we take for granted in the West — elevating yourself and climbing the hierarchy and being a go-getter — for many people in China, their sense of self is much more tethered to other people, whereas in the West we have a strongly rooted sense that we’re all special and our sense of self is more independent. This cross-cultural difference in individualism versus collectivism has long been explored in cultural psychology research. Yet seeing first-hand how different the self operates in a very automatic way with some of these people, in their spontaneous thinking and the ways they interact, was really interesting to me. These experiences of travel help get at the core of what aspects of human diversity are universal and what aspects are so culturally specific, applying only to a given culture at a moment in time. In a sense, then, travel can help answer fundamental questions about the human experience.

Jon Freeman is the guest speaker for the fourth iteration of Passion Passport’s Storyteller Series at 7:00 p.m. on Monday, February 27. RSVP for the event here.

Photos by David Dworkind, Steven Chan, Brent Foster, Andy Gawlowski, Pete Rojwongsuriya, and Paul Martinez.