This article originally appeared in the Newton blog on RealClearScience. You can read the original here.
If somebody says, "Well, they all look alike," one might assume that person to be a closet bigot. But in all likelihood, he's simply being honest about a well known limitation that plagues people of all colors: we humans are notoriously poor at distinguishing between the members of races different from our own.
The Other-Race Effect, as this psychological shortcoming is called, has been studied for decades. Originally realized during times of mass immigration, it was first recognized by science a century ago. Theories to explain it abound, but two clearly have an edge. The first hypothesis goes something like this: we generally spend more time with people of our own race and thus gain "perceptual expertise" for the characteristics of people who look like us. For example, since Caucasians sport wide variability in hair color, they may grow accustomed to differentiating strangers by looking at their hair. On the other hand, black people show more variability in skin tone, so they might instinctively use skin tone to tell others apart.
The second hypothesis states that people think more categorically about members of other races. Basically, we take notice that they're different from us, but tune out less noticeable characteristics. "The problem is not that we can't code the details of cross-race faces--it's that we don't," Daniel Levin, a cognitive psychologist at Kent State University explained to the American Psychological Association.
Concrete evidence is often hard to come by in psychology, so it's unlikely that either theory will ever be "proven" conclusively. We can, however, switch gears and examine a couple of things that don't factor in to the Other-Race Effect. First, it's not simply because some races are more homogenous. Available evidence suggests that humans belonging to all ethnicities differ in a multitude of ways.
"Cognitive psychologists have pointed to the fact that faces are not all alike; they differ from each other in terms of specific features like width, length, size of nose, and color of eyes,"Professor Lawrence White of Beloit College says.
Second, the Other-Race effect is not necessarily fueled by racist thinking.
"Studies have found that racial attitudes don’t predict performance in cross-race identification tasks; prejudiced and non-prejudiced people are equally likely to fall victim to the other-race effect," White says.
Many might scoff at the idea of studying the Other-Race Effect, but it certainly merits examination. The effect is ubiquitous, and has real-world, life and death implications. Take eyewitness testimony, for example. The Other-Race effect suggests that witnesses of one race would not be very skilled at identifying suspects of another. Published research bears this out. In one study, investigators examined 40 participants in a racially diverse area of the United States. Participants watched a video of a crime being committed, then, over the following 24 hours, were asked to pick a suspect out of a photo line-up. The majority of participants either misidentified the suspect or stated the suspect was not in the line-up at all. However, correct identification of the suspect occurred more often when the eyewitness and the suspect were of the same race.
Is there any way to prevent or minimize the Other-Race Effect? Absolutely. Recent research points to a sensitive period in which the effect develops. If infants regularly see and interact with people of other races before nine months of age, the Other-Race Effect may never emerge. But for those who are already inept at distinguishing between people of other ethnicities, don't fret, there's still hope. According to University of London psychologist Gizelle Anzures, "The Other-Race Effect can be prevented, attenuated, and even reversed given experience with a novel race class.
So broaden your horizons! Get out there any meet some new people!
Image courtesy of Shutterstock