The way we process faces may be out of our control — at least to some degree — and can unknowingly lead to discrimination. So the authors of a new paper published on 1 July in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences asked, “When we observe members of another racial group, are their actual physical distinctions blurred in our mind’s eye?” (1). Based on the results, it seems we are indeed hardwired to process faces of other races differently.
So, there is some truth to the old adage that people of another race are often harder to differentiate between — often referred to as the “other-race effect”. This form of stereotyping — or perhaps, even prejudice — is well-documented. Previous studies also showed that people have a greater propensity to recognise details and differences in people of their own race. The new findings confirm those of previous studies, suggesting that it is much easier to recognise distinguishing features among people of your own race.
However, this time Hugues and colleagues showed that this tendency runs deep. In fact, all the way down to the earliest stages of sensory perception. “Biases for other-race faces emerge at some of the earliest stages of sensory perception”, the authors write. And this can have profound implications, potentially affecting downstream beliefs and behaviours simply from noticing the differences in members of one own’s race but not others.
What this could mean is that “we are much more likely to generalize negative experiences if we see individuals as similar or interchangeable parts of a broad social group”, says lead author Dr Brent Hugues of the University of California Riverside.
To come up with the results, the researchers showed images of white and black faces to 17 white participants while the looked for changes in brain activity. More specifically, they used MRI to examine the high-level visual cortex, the area of the brain that processes visual information, and in particular, faces.
The same effect was previously shown in other groups and not just white populations. But this could have been the result of minority versus majority perceptions. In other words, minority groups are exposed to a lot more faces of the majority group, which could alter the brain in some way and reduce this effect. So, the findings here cannot be extrapolated to other races without further investigation.
The good news is that these effects can, in some ways, be controlled. And more importantly, “attitudes, motives and goals can shape visual perceptual processes”. Therefore, the study should not be used as a free pass for prejudice, but instead, will hopefully bring about more awareness to unintentional racial bias.
Furthermore, increased awareness of our own bias can help prevent some of the possible “immediate real-world effects” of the other-race effect. For instance, from simply confusing the identities of two coworkers of the same ethnicity to mistakenly identifying the wrong suspect from a police lineup, which could have life-changing consequences.
(1) Hughes, B.L. et al. Neural adaptation to faces reveals racial outgroup homogeneity effects in early perception. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2019). DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1822084116