RIVERSIDE, Calif. — Phrases like “You all look the same to me” or “I can’t tell any of them apart” are commonly associated with racial stereotyping and prejudice. Yet as it turns out, a new study finds that we really are hard-wired to have a harder time distinguishing the facial characteristics of individuals from a different race than our own.
Commonly referred to as the “other-race” or “cross-race” effect, for centuries people have complained of not being to tell the members of racial groups separate from their own apart. In modern times, this notion is largely written off as a byproduct of a much more bigoted and racist time in human history. However, researchers from the University of California, Riverside say our brains are inherently inclined to either process, or not process, facial characteristics based on race.
According to the research team, this sub-conscious process occurs instantaneously as our eyes focus on a face. Throughout the course of the study, researchers aimed to answer one central question: When we observe an individual from another racial group, are their facial features blurred in our mind’s eye?
A total of 17 Caucasians were brought in for the study and asked to look at both white and black faces on a monitor while inside an MRI scanner. The MRIs were used to observe any changes in brain activity while participants viewed the faces. There were also some facial viewing experiments that took place outside of the MRI scanner.
Using the MRI scanner, researchers focused on participants’ high-level visual cortexes, or the area of the brain responsible for processing visual information regarding faces. They were interested to see if this area exhibited different behavior depending on the race of the face being viewed by the participant.
Participants were much more likely to recognize facial differences among their own race than other races. This isn’t the first study to come to these conclusions, but this time around researchers went a step further and uncovered that this trait is ingrained in our earliest sensory processes.
“Our results suggest that biases for other-race faces emerge at some of the earliest stages of sensory perception,” the paper reads.
These findings may appear largely trivial to some, but the study’s authors say that this proclivity not to recognize members of other races has likely had a profound effect on countless people’s personal experiences, beliefs, and behaviors. While some of these instances may be largely benign, others could be detrimental to a person’s life; researchers gave the example of an innocent person being accused of a crime they did not commit due to being picked out of a police lineup.
“We are much more likely to generalize negative experiences if we see individuals as similar or interchangeable parts of a broad social group,” says UC Riverside psychologist Brent Hughes, the study’s leader, in a release.
Prior research has found that the “other-race” effect occurs in other racial groups besides just Caucasians, but Hughes say he is not comfortable extending his study’s findings to African Americans, citing “majority vs. minority perceptions.”
“Members of minority groups wind up being exposed to more members of majority groups than majority members get exposed to minority members,” Hughes explains. “It could be that exposure to individuals of different groups may help the visual system develop expertise that reduces this effect.”
At the end of the day, the study’s authors made sure to emphasize that under no circumstances do their findings give anyone permission to generalize or discriminate against a certain racial group.
“These effects are not uncontrollable,” Hughes concludes. “These race biases in perception are malleable and subject to individual motivations and goals. In this sense, attitudes, motives and goals can be shaping visual perceptual processes.”
The study is published in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States.