Researcher Investigates How Our Snap Judgments Affect Society

Key Findings

  • Humans make rapid and unconscious judgements about a person’s trustworthiness and personality in the blink of an eye.
  • Stereotypes about human faces have major consequences for elections, employment, and legal proceedings.
  • Trainings that counteract stereotypes can quickly and easily reduce bias. 

Whether scrolling through pictures on social media, evaluating candidates in an election, or walking down the street, our minds are constantly and unconsciously making snap judgments about the people around us. Dr. Jonathan Freeman’s research has shown that humans make rapid guesses about the trustworthiness, intelligence, and personality of another person in less time than it takes to blink an eye (about 100 milliseconds) (link to this article). Whether we are correct or not, our guesses have major consequences, including for election outcomes, criminal sentencing, and use of force in police encounters. Dr. Freeman’s work is motivated by a desire to understand the cognitive mechanisms behind social biases and, importantly, to inform interventions to improve fairness in society. For his groundbreaking contributions to social psychology and neuroscience and advocacy for LGBTQ+ scientists, Dr. Freeman has received the Federation of Associations in Behavioral and Brain Sciences Early Career Impact Award from the Society for Experimental Social Psychology.

Since complex judgments about the social world are made in less time than the blink of an eye, Dr. Freeman relies on technologies that rapidly track brain activity and social decision making. Dr. Freeman’s MouseTracker software can detect how a person’s hand moves as they use a mouse to click between different options. For example, participants’ hands may waver back and forth between assigning “male” or “female” sex when shown a politician’s face. The extent to which a female politician’s face evokes the “male” response suggests how poorly she will fare in her election (link to this article). Simultaneously, Dr. Freeman may take measurements of oxygenated blood flow in the brain using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging. Using these technologies, he has identified brain regions that automatically and unconsciously respond to faces. Putting these data together reveals the rapid, unconscious brain mechanisms that underlie bias and may inform training to reduce these biases.

Dr. Freeman stresses that the brain is highly flexible, and his work has proven that biases can be changed through simple trainings (link to this article). Across multiple studies, he found that untrained participants automatically judged trustworthiness in faces and used these guesses to allocate money, rate someone’s qualification for jobs, and make split second evaluations of their character. After a computer training that challenged expectations by pairing untrustworthy faces with trustworthy behaviors, participants showed significantly lower biases. In some cases, bias was even eliminated. Rapid judgments about trustworthiness likely helped our primate and human ancestors to survive encounters with strangers, yet a quick and easy computer training can help overcome unhelpful or incorrect biases in the modern world. As he looks to the future, Dr. Freeman hopes to partner with researchers who can translate his scientific insights into impactful antibias trainings for judges, police officers, and others making life-changing decisions in society.

Dr. Freeman’s prolific program of research, which has already produced about 100 scientific articles in the early stage of his career, has been continuously funded by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. This funding has fed Dr. Freeman’s insatiable curiosity for exploring new research questions and methods to better understand how humans navigate the world. In the past five years, Dr. Freeman has also become concerned about increasingly documented disparities that LGBTQ+ scientists face and the weak points that policymakers and researchers have in understanding and addressing these issues. To this end, he has advocated for voluntary collection of sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) information in the U.S. government’s national surveys of the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) workforce. These surveys are used to officially document underrepresented groups and ensure their equity and inclusion in STEM fields, including potential allocation of federal resources to address potential barriers. He has used both a knack for public advocacy with his methodological training to collaborate with the government on using the most effective methods for measuring SOGI to generate the first official statistics on LGBTQ+ representation in STEM while ensuring privacy and confidentiality. He is hopeful that new data will “open the floodgates” for identifying and rectifying disparities in the STEM workforce.

Future Directions

  • Integrate findings from social psychology, cognitive neuroscience, and computational science to create a comprehensive model of social processing.
  • Translate scientific insights into interventions to reduce bias in society.
  • Advocate for collection of sexual orientation and gender identity data to resolve weak points in data collection and expose and address disparities in the STEM workforce.


Dr. Jonathan Freeman is a recipient of the 2023 Federation of Associations in Behavioral & Brain Sciences (FABBS) Early Career Impact Award and was nominated by the Society for Experimental Social Psychology.

SESP 2023 takes place in Madison, Wisconsin from October 12-14, 2023.

Read more about Dr. Freeman’s work at the links below: