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You may possess biases you aren’t even aware about, according to a new study out of Northwestern University. It’s widely understood that humans learn through observation, but the paper identifies a potential flaw in the way we process information. We apparently pick up non-verbal cues when we observe human interactions, and we could be unconsciously using those cues to shape our worldview — for better or for worse.

For the study, volunteers were asked to watch a film featuring human interactions and rate their opinions on the characters. Nearly every participant demonstrated negative bias toward characters subjected to negative nonverbal cues, but only about 30 per cent of the volunteers were aware those cues impacted their decisions.

“This has important implications for how people make sense of the nonverbal messages that they are exposed to in everyday life,” lead author Allison Skinner, formerly at Northwestern University and now an assistant professor at the University of Georgia, said in a statement.

“These findings suggest that when we see people being less friendly toward one individual relative to another, we often attribute the unfriendliness to the target. Believing that we like them less because they do not seem to be very friendly, when in fact, it is others who were not very friendly to them.”

Skinner says her work demonstrates how nonverbal cues may help form group biases.

“These studies build upon prior work showing that attitudes toward racial groups can be influenced by nonverbal signals,” Skinner said.

“For example, white people in the U.S. who observe white people displaying negative nonverbal signals toward black people tend to go on to show more anti-black bias than those who were exposed to positive nonverbal signals directed toward a black person.”

Co-author Sylvia Perry adds that nonverbal cues can help form a negative bias even when a person’s outward attitude is neutral.

“I think this has important implications for our understanding of how we develop biases toward social groups, in general — even from a young age,” she said.

The paper was published Monday in SAGE Journals.