The good, the bad, and the different: Understanding stigma towards people with facial differences Project Summary / Abstract Movie villains are more likely than heroes to be depicted with facial anomalies (e.g., warts, scars), suggesting filmmakers exploit intuitions that beauty and morality are related when creating villains. This observation raises questions about the nature of this relationship: Are the facially different judged more harshly for moral wrongs? Do they benefit less often from generosity? Is their mistreatment predicted by observers? prosocial (e.g., empathic concern) or antisocial (e.g., disgust) emotional responses to them, since such emotions are known to influence moral behavior in different ways? Or by dispositions that shape values relating to morality? Or by the neural response to seeing facial anomalies? We recently found evidence for a ?different-is-bad? bias against people with facial anomalies that was linked to a neural marker of dehumanization (i.e., deactivation in medial prefrontal cortex; mPFC). Facial anomalies may incorrectly signal poor health despite being unrelated to an underlying illness, leading to feelings of disgust capable of motivating dehumanizing behaviors. This account is consistent with recent evolutionary models of disgust suggesting it serves to limit pathogen exposure and to regulate moral behavior. A recent meta-analysis found little to no effect of disgust on sociomoral judgments, however, suggesting disgust alone cannot explain the different-is-bad bias. If this bias is causally related to dehumanization, which manifests behaviorally as inhumane or cold treatment towards others, then its presence should predict more antisociality and/or less prosociality directed at the facially different.
The aims of this project are: 1. To quantify dehumanizing behavior towards people with facial differences using behavioral economic games. 2. To determine whether dehumanizing behavior is predicted by mPFC deactivation. 3. To establish the necessity of the mPFC in giving rise to dehumanizing behavior using the lesion method. After acquiring and norming photographs of faces with and without anomalies, a study will be carried out in which participants will play economic games, purportedly with the people depicted in the photographs, during fMRI scanning. In a separate study, lesion patients will play behavioral versions of the economic games. The University of Pennsylvania is the ideal environment in which to conduct the proposed research given the accessibility of the lesion patient database and the availability of state-of-the-art neuroimaging facilities. The sponsorship team?s expertise in neuroeconomics and advanced neuroimaging methods fits the applicant?s training needs perfectly, and opportunities for further development are available through relevant coursework and seminars. Understanding how people think about and treat people with facial differences could inform interventions aimed at educating the public about bias and its consequences, thereby illuminating an underappreciated psychological burden shouldered by people who look different.

Public Health Relevance

The good, the bad, and the different: Understanding stigma towards people with facial differences Project Narrative Motivated by the well-documented ?beauty-is-good? stereotype, we propose to test the hypothesis that a complimentary ?different-is-bad? stereotype affects patients with facial anomalies (e.g., port-wine stains, cleft lip and cleft palate), potentially exposing an underappreciated psychological burden of looking different. The different-is-bad stereotype is associated with robust implicit biases against people with facial anomalies, it results in assigning them negative personal attributes, and it is accompanied by a neural biomarker hypothesized to reflect dehumanization; however, links between these attitudinal and neural measures have not been established nor have their behavioral consequences been characterized (e.g., discrimination). We propose to test the different-is-bad hypothesis, characterizing the biases experienced by people with facial anomalies using a combination of attitudinal (i.e., implicit and explicit), neural (i.e., testing in patients with focal brain damage, functional MRI in healthy volunteers), and behavioral (i.e., economic games) measures.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
National Institute of Dental & Craniofacial Research (NIDCR)
Postdoctoral Individual National Research Service Award (F32)
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NIDR Special Grants Review Committee (DSR)
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Frieden, Leslie A
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University of Pennsylvania
Schools of Medicine
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