During a Skype conversation, Quadflieg explained that MRI-based brain studies show stereotypes are activated in about 170 milliseconds. No matter how open-minded we fancy ourselves, these biases kick in without our realizing it, she says.
In a 2011 study in the journal Neuroimage, Quadflieg reported that the areas of the brain associated with body recognition had to work much harder when the test subject was shown a person who didn’t fit his or her expectations — for instance, a woman in a pilot’s uniform.
Quadflieg says a process known as “implicit stereotyping” allows these split-second biases to kick in despite political or personal beliefs. When a woman defies these biased expectations, “You’re very good at coming up with reasons for why that might be: ‘Oh, her dad was a professor, too.’” But with a man, “They just think, ‘OK, yeah, there’s a man who’s good in math. Big deal.’”