The visual perception of individuals has received considerable attention (visual person perception), but little social psychological work has examined the processes underlying the visual perception of groups of people (visual people perception). Ensemble-coding is a visual mechanism that automatically extracts summary statistics (e.g., average size) of lower-level sets of stimuli (e.g., geometric figures), and also extends to the visual perception of groups of faces. Here, we consider whether ensemble-coding supports people perception, allowing individuals to form rapid, accurate impressions about groups of people. Across nine studies, we demonstrate that people visually extract high-level properties (e.g., diversity, hierarchy) that are unique to social groups, as opposed to individual persons. Observers rapidly and accurately perceived group diversity and hierarchy, or variance across race, gender, and dominance (Studies 1–3). Further, results persist when observers are given very short display times, backward pattern masks, color- and contrast-controlled stimuli, and absolute versus relative response options (Studies 4a–7b), suggesting robust effects supported specifically by ensemble-coding mechanisms. Together, we show that humans can rapidly and accurately perceive not only individual persons, but also emergent social information unique to groups of people. These people perception findings demonstrate the importance of visual processes for enabling people to perceive social groups and behave effectively in group-based social interactions.
Phillips, L.T., Michael Slepian, and B.L. Hughes. "Perceiving groups: The people perception of diversity and hierarchy." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 114, no. 5 (2018): 766-785.
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