Look at the photo above, do you see a face? If so, you’re experiencing something known as pareidolia: a tendency to form meaning from a blur of stimuli. Seeing faces in inanimate objects (or Donald Trump in a dog's ear) is a common manifestation, and apparently one in which most people perceive faces as male rather than female.
That’s the findings from a recent paper that observed that face pareidolia, or "illusory faces", trigger perceptions beyond simply spotting a face. People apply age, emotional expression, and gender to them, too. Published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the study authors concluded that nonhuman faces need extra “feminine” detail in order to be perceived as female. It’s like sexy green M&M all over again.
The results come from large-scale behavioral experiments which tasked over 3,800 adults from the United States with identifying the perceived gender of illusory faces. Their responses showed that people were significantly more likely to consider an inanimate object with an illusory face to be male rather than female. They also associated expressions and ages with face pareidolia, being much more likely to perceive objects as young, happy, and male rather than old, disgusted, and female.
Across different experimental designs they tested to see if the colorway of the imagery or the object photographed could explain the gender bias, but found that illusory faces' corresponding object images didn't elicit the same perception. That is, a simple photo of a fried egg didn't elicit the same biased perception as a fried egg with an illusory face.
"Collectively, [the results] showed that illusory faces have a distinct emotional expression, age, and gender," wrote the study authors. "Our most striking observation is a strong bias to perceive illusory faces as male rather than female, even when a neutral option is available. If this bias is robust and reliable across observers, it has important implications for understanding how the perception of sex is processed in the human brain, particularly given that these stimuli do not have a biological sex."
Instead, it seems the significant gender bias is indicative of an innate or learned way of processing images that sees us apply a male gender to anything vaguely resembling a face.
The findings of course have their limitations, being built from an (albeit large) experiment using only participants from the US. The default or bias may vary in other locations or cultures.
So why does it exist? The exact answer remains unclear but, speaking to Science News, lead author Susan Wardle highlights the examples of emojis and Lego as evidence of a similar bias in our daily lives. It’s often the case in both examples that characters are considered default male unless some lashes, bigger lips, makeup, or other feminizing features are introduced into the equation. We need only turn to the recent sexy green M&M-gate to recall how society perceived the lifestyle choices of a candy in knee-high boots for further confirmation.
Oh, what a time to be alive.