Composite image with a drawing of a face on the left and the names of colors on the right

Unit 3: When seeing shouldn’t be believing

Guided Learning


Those of us who are sighted rely immensely on our visual system to know and understand our physical and social world.

But the visual world is not perceived directly – our perception is only as good as the inferences we make based on past experiences. And sometimes these inferences just fail us. Was the job candidate you hired actually qualified, or did you make an incorrect assumption based on a visual cue that you were unaware of, like the beauty of their face or the style of their suit?

Here, we will explore different visual biases that may impact our decisions. The good news is that once we truly understand that our vision is fallible, we can act to outsmart it.

Module 1 of 5



Most of us believe we can control what pieces of information influence our decisions. But can we? The Stroop Test suggests no.

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NARRATOR: There's a simple test that's been making fools of us since the 1930s. Can you beat it? You'll see words printed in different colors. Just name the color of each word you see, as fast as you can. Don't read the word, just name the color of the letters. For example: yellow, blue, green, red. Got it? Try it for yourself. Ready? Go! [The words “yellow,” “green,” “blue,” and “red” appear, with the color of the text matching the name of the color: for instance, the word “yellow” appears in yellow text; “green” in green text, etc. Each word appears several times in random order.] Pretty easy, right? Now that you know what you're doing, try it again with one small change. Remember: name the ink color, not the word. Ready? Go! [The same color words appear, except the color of the text now does not match the name of the color: for instance, the word “blue” appears in green text; “green” in blue text, “yellow” in red text, etc. Each word appears several times in random order.] Was that just as easy? No. But why? It's because naming colors may be easy, but reading is easier. Reading is automatic. It's effortless. We can't NOT read - and we do it all the time. So when the word BLUE matches the color BLUE, it's easy to do the task perfectly. But when the two don't match, suddenly, we take longer. We make more mistakes. It's hard. What you just experienced is the Stroop Effect, named for psychologist J. Ridley Stroop. But its effects aren't limited to the psychology laboratory. In fact, it's rumored that this test was used by Americans during the Cold War to catch Russian spies. Here's how. The agents were asked to do the Stroop Task... but in Russian. The Cyrillic characters meant nothing to the American agents, so nothing stopped them from simply rattling off the right answers. But the spies, who could read Russian -- they couldn't ignore the words, so they slowed down, and they stumbled. And this revealed their true identities. This is an interesting story, but it also teaches us something important about decision-making... even if we're not Russian spies. Once information is in front of us, we process it -- even if it's irrelevant, misleading, or even wrong. So think about this: if having even two variables makes our job harder, what happens when there are 5, 10, even hundreds of variables in play, for instance when we evaluate people? It's commonly argued that without television, John F. Kennedy may not have become the 35th President of the United States. People who watched his debate with Richard Nixon tended to vote for the younger, traditionally attractive Kennedy. But the people who listened to the debate tended to vote for Nixon, who sounded more traditionally Presidential. RICHARD NIXON: We know the way to progress, and I think first of all, our own record proves that we know the way. NARRATOR: Our decisions shouldn't hinge on whether information is seen or heard. But this debate showed that seemingly irrelevant features do matter -- even in key decisions like voting. So what can we do to make our decisions better? Let's start with the Stroop Test itself. When people try to beat the test, the first thing they often do is squint. This blurs the word and puts the focus on the color. Smart. We can do this metaphorically, too. In the 1970s and 80s, American symphony orchestras began using blind auditions to filter out the information they didn't need. So the musicians played. The judges judged. But between them now was a curtain that kept the focus on the music instead of the musician. Over the next 25 years, the number of women musicians in major orchestras skyrocketed. Their chances of being hired had increased by 25%. This is a template for how we can outsmart our own minds. One: acknowledge that you too can be “Strooped.” Our world is fast-paced and rich with information, so we can't just say, “Oh, I'll ignore that.” Two: don't assume that more information is better. Strange as it may sound, consider saying “please send me the data without x, y, or z.” Remove names from resumes or graded assignments. Make evaluations before knowing anyone else's opinion. Each of these strategies takes work, but sometimes you need to squint to see more clearly. Whether you're looking for spies or your next employee, you'll do it better if you focus on just what matters.


Key takeaways from this module

Test your knowledge

  • What is the Stroop Effect?
  • From the Stroop Task (saying the color of the word, not the word), the right lessons to take away are: (select all that apply)
Module 2 of 5

Should You Trust Your Vision?


Experience a powerful illusion in this demo based on experiments by Professors Dan Levin and Mahzarin Banaji.

Module 3 of 5

Illusions at work


We say that “seeing is believing,” but visual illusions can trick us, whether we’re looking at checkerboards or human faces. How can we outsmart them?

Watch the video


Key takeaways from this module

Test your knowledge

  • In the checkerboard illusion designed by vision scientist Ted Adelson, the shadowed “white” square and the unshadowed “black” square are actually
Module 4 of 5

How well can you read a face?


Do you know what “competence” looks like? Try this quiz, based on Professor Alexander Todorov’s 2005 experiment, to learn what your impressions predict.

Module 5 of 5

About Face: How First Impressions Fool Us


Our faces broadcast information about us: whether we’re smart, warm, trustworthy. How do these signals influence decision-making – and are they accurate?

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Key takeaways from this module

Test your knowledge

  • Which of these facts about face perception are true? (select all that apply)

What You've Learned

Our vision is fallible. We inadvertently process irrelevant information, and our expectations, not reality, shape our perception.

Think back to the Levin and Banaji study, where pictures of faces with Afrocentric features were seen as darker than faces with Eurocentric features even though both were the same shade of gray. This should surprise us – our vision wasn’t accurate! What we saw was contrary to the facts. What does this mean for how we treat others?

We can hold ourselves to higher standards. We can ask ourselves to prove our initial assessments about a person with data, not gut feelings. Be your own devil’s advocate. Ask yourself questions like: what has this person done to justify this impression?

Vision plays a large role in making decisions. Identify and outsmart the sources of bias from visual information that can lead you astray – by deviating from both accuracy and your own values.


Question 1

In the workplace, we often hire or assign tasks based on our evaluations of trust and competence. Of course, we want to hire people who are both trustworthy and competent, but our eyes and what we ‘see’ in a face can mislead us.

Faces are among the most potent sources of bias because we often fail to recognize that we are making deeper assumptions of a person’s character from the physical aspects of their face. What are ways we can outsmart face-based bias?

Think of concrete, actionable ways, not just vague promises like “I’ll try not to form impressions from the face”. These don’t work effectively – our brains automatically process the information in front of us, even if we don’t want them to!

What you write in this box is just for you. You will have a chance to download your response, but it will not be stored on our servers.

Your response:

Our thoughts:

The next time you can see a whole bunch of new faces, look at each face and ask yourself whether you believe the person “looks” trustworthy or not. Then do the same thing but ask yourself if the person “looks” competent or not. See if you can surprise yourself by how easily you seem to be making these decisions based on just the face, even though you know nothing about that person!

Are there patterns to your decisions? Do you think women’s faces exude greater trust than men’s faces? Or, that men’s faces signal more competence than women’s?

Now that you know the data, work to become your own best critic.

Congratulations! You have completed Unit 3: When seeing shouldn’t be believing.

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Dive deeper

Extra materials if you want to learn more

Frank Stanton, the then-president of CBS, said of the Kennedy-Nixon debate: “Kennedy was bronzed beautifully… Nixon looked like death.” The legendary debate changed the face of political media strategy, but was it warranted? A 2003 study by political scientist James Druckman suggests, yes. People were significantly more likely to think Kennedy “won” the debate when they watched it versus listened to it.

Colors are one thing, but our decisions can also be influenced by something as insignificant as a single letter – whether we’re aware of it or not. Watch this video about how José Zamora dropped a single letter to gain a title, and read more about the research that shows how names can Stroop us.

There are illusions we all fall prey to, like Ted Adelson’s Checker-Shadow illusion or Roger Shepard’s table tops. But some perceptions vary from person to person. Remember this dress? Was it black and blue or white and gold? This simple question set fire to the internet in 2015. The real dress was black and blue… so why did some people see something so different? It turns out that the colors we “see” change depending on how our minds interpret the source of light in the photograph. Read more about the science behind the illusion at Wired.

Just as a face labeled “Black” or “White” looks darker or lighter, or how a musician labeled a “natural” or a “hard-worker” sounds different, the name at the top of a resume can change how qualified we think a person is. To learn more, read our article Can women be biased against other women? and listen to our podcast Race bias in hiring: When both applicant and employer lose.

“Some 51% of the employers who considered candidates individually chose an employee who had underperformed relative to the group. By contrast, only 8% of the employers who considered candidates side-by-side chose underperformers.” How does simultaneous evaluation help us see talent more clearly? Read more about the research at The Wall Street Journal.

“Most companies say they want to attract a diverse workforce, but few deliver. The only solution may be a radical one: anonymity.” Find out how Silicon Valley is taking steps towards a more diverse workforce (New York Times).

See more demonstrations of how faces influence our first impressions on the Perception and Judgment Lab’s website. Dr. Todorov’s book Face Value: The Irresistible Influence of First Impressions was published in 2017 by Princeton University Press.

“People are convinced that more competent-looking business people are more valuable, and they get higher salaries,’ [Professor Christopher] Olivola explained, even though the companies don’t perform any better under their leadership”. From James Hamblin’s article in The Atlantic: The Introverted Face.

“After his mugshot sent the Internet into a frenzy, the 32-year-old received modeling offers. Fundraising efforts and Facebook groups were created for Meeks”. From the Los Angeles Times’ Veronica Rocha: “‘Hot Felon’ Jeremy Meeks released from federal prison and gets job offers”.

A person’s face can even influence the medical care they receive: when clinicians watched videos of women undergoing painful examinations, Amanda Williams and colleagues found that they were less likely to recommend appropriate pain treatment for those who “looked” less trustworthy. Learn more at “The Conversation”.

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Unit 3: When seeing shouldn’t be believing