Study of facial pareidolia reveals gender biases in the way we see faces in everyday objects

If you already have imagined you could see a face staring at you from a slice of Swiss cheese, you experienced a phenomenon known as facial pareidolia.

It is the scientific name for seeing faces in everyday objects such as food, clouds or plants.

Now, new research has found that when people face pareidolia, most visualize a young, masculine face.

The study may help explain why there is a man, not a woman, on the moon or why Jesus appears more often in toasted sandwiches than Mary.

The research, published in the academic journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, examined the reaction of more than 3,800 people to a series of images of inanimate objects – some with obvious faces, some without.

“What we concluded is that the minimum information we need to detect a face is not enough to see that face as a woman,” said Jessica Taubert, a psychology researcher at the University of Queensland, at ABC RN Breakfast.

This means that when there is just enough visual information to see a face – say, two holes for the eyes and one for the mouth – most people perceive that face as masculine.

Exactly why, said Dr. Taubert, they are not sure.

“It will be a while before we understand exactly why the male bias is so prevalent in this case – but it’s definitely there.”

There were equal numbers of male and female subjects, and the bias was shared by both genders, Dr. Taubert said.

Dr. Chris Baker, co-author of the facial pareidolia study, took this photo of a face in his lunch.( Provided: Dr. Chris Baker)

Although researchers aren’t drawn to the reasons for this bias, Dr. Taubert said that, anecdotally, the subjects of images perceived as women had obvious feminine characteristics.

She said the research could explain, for example, why we put dresses on the icon for women’s bathrooms.

“When I look at the examples of these illusory faces that are perceived as feminine, they tend to have very prominent eyelashes or lips, or, you know, some sort of feature that we can associate with women,” Dr. Taubert.

“So this could be the extra information the brain needs to see these things as feminine.”

Happy tomato, angry toast

Dr Taubert worked on the study with a team of researchers led by Dr Susan Wardle, a US-based Australian neuroscientist.

The research also looked at people’s ability to read emotion and age in illusory faces.

A light coming out of the snow with patterns that look like a sad robot face.
People consistently identify emotions in the faces they see in everyday objects, the researchers found.(Getty Images: Daniele Carotenuto Photography)

Many inanimate objects shown to subjects appeared to have a specific expression – for example happy, sad or angry.

“People can identify this very easily,” Dr. Taubert said.

Dr Taubert said the faces “also appear to be very age specific”, with most identified as being under 10 or between 20 and 29.

Combined with the biases already mentioned, this means that the faces we see in inanimate objects have very specific demographics.

“When you see one of these faces in your burnt toast, you’re probably seeing a young man,” Dr. Taubert said.

Immaculate confections

Every once in a while an image pops up that appears to show a well-known face peering at an inanimate object – whether it’s a rump steak that looks like Donald Trump or a cinnamon roll that looks like Mother Teresa.

It also happened during the research, Dr. Taubert said.

A classic example, she said, was the face of Jesus and other religious icons that frequently appear in toast and other foods.

Dr Taubert said not much is yet known about how our brains make this possible.

“Probably the next step [in the research] is to understand the narrative that we can see and derive from these simple illusions,” she said.

“We’re definitely generating whole stories about who these people are…and what they’re doing there.”

Dr. Taubert said researchers hope to examine differences in how different individuals and groups experience pareidolia.

“What we really want to understand is if everyone sees these things and if it’s all the time or if there are different stages in your life where you might not see the faces as often,” said she declared.

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