You may consider yourself progressive and open-minded, but stereotypes may be deeply embedded in your visual system, according to a new study. Findings of the research, published in Nature Neuroscience, find that stereotypes influence the brain’s visual system, actually molding the way we view people’s faces.

The research hints that implicit bias — being prejudiced or biased despite our better intentions — may be more prevalent than we’d like to admit. It could possibly impact the way our society moves forward in dealing with race and minority divisions, as well as changing gender roles.

“Our findings provide evidence that the stereotypes we hold can systematically alter the brain’s visual representation of a face, distorting what we see to be more in line with our biased expectations,” said Johnathan Freeman, an assistant professor at NYU’s Department of Psychology and senior author of the study, in the statement. “For example, many individuals have ingrained stereotypes that associate men as being more aggressive, women as being more appeasing, or black individuals as being more hostile — though they may not endorse these stereotypes personally.”

These stereotypical associations “can shape the basic visual processing of other people, predictably warping how the brain ‘sees’ a person’s face,” Freeman continued.

In the study, the researchers had to find a way to measure unconscious cognitive processes, rather than have participants answer a survey in which they could consciously correct and alter their reactions. To do so, they used a mouse-tracking technique that relied on the participant’s hand movements to depict unconscious cognitive reactions as they made sudden decisions about other people.

In the first experiment, the participants’ brain activity was monitored with functional magnetic resonance imagining (fMRI) as they viewed a screen showing various faces of men and women representing different races and a wide range of emotions. While their brains were being scanned, the participants had to list the gender, race, and emotion of the faces with the mouse-tracker. It turned out that the participants were more likely to perceive men (black men in particular) as “angry,” even if their features didn’t show anger. Female faces, meanwhile, were rated “happy” more often than not; both female and male Asian faces were often perceived as “female,” and black faces tended to be initially perceived as “male.” Comparing these results to the fMRI scans, the researchers saw that neural-activation patterns in the brain’s visual system when seeing black male faces were similar to those when seeing an objectively angry face. The researchers concluded that these were indications of unconscious biases about race and gender.

“If stereotypes we have learned can change how we visually process another person, this kind of visual stereotyping may only serve to reinforce and possibly exacerbate the biases that exist in the first place,” said Freeman in the statement.

The notion that we’re unconsciously biased in spite of ourselves isn’t new. Researchers have known that racial inequality is everywhere, even in the healthcare system, and it’s often carried out by the very people who claim they’re not racists. Implicit bias has been studied before: For example, in one study, researchers found that 75 percent of whites and Asians showed implicit bias in favor of whites compared to blacks. In 2007, researchers found that implicit bias among physicians influenced their decision-making when it came to black and white patients, resulting in inequality of treatment and medical procedures.

The NYU study may be one of the first, however, to examine the visual system’s role in implicit bias — and the researchers hope it will further help us become more aware of how stereotypes impact our decisions and perspectives.

“Ultimately, this research could be used to develop better interventions to reduce or possibly eliminate unconscious biases,” Freeman said in the statement. “The findings highlight the need to address these biases at the visual level as well, which may be more entrenched and require specific forms of intervention. This visual bias occurs the moment we glimpse at another person, well before we have a chance to correct ourselves or regulate our behavior.”

Source: Freeman J, Johnson K. More Than Meets the Eye: Split-Second Social Perception. Nature Neuroscience , 2016.