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Seeing race: the Other-Race Effect
June 20, 2009 8:26 AM   Subscribe

Seeing race: the Other-Race Effect. Why do so many people think people of other races look alike? Babies as young as three months old "tend to recognize faces from their own race better than those from other races," but "babies raised with frequent exposure to people of other races don’t develop this early bias." The Other-Race Effect, aka the Cross-Race Effect, "carries practical implications for cases of mistaken eyewitness identification." A follow-up study with Chinese babies confirmed the effect, and notes that it can change: "Korean adults who were adopted by French families during their childhood (aged 3–9 years) demonstrated the same discrimination deficit for Korean faces shown by the native French population." Yes, you have to be carefully taught.
posted by shetterly (36 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
I had a political science professor whose life work was based on the idea that we are hard-wired for intergroup conflict so as to spur in-group cohesion and social and technological development. It was all done with socio-biology experiments and blood tests for seretonin levels.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:41 AM on June 20, 2009


Yes, you have to be carefully taught.
I don't get it. Isn't the rest of this post essentially saying "you have to not be exposed at an early age"?

That's a far cry from "you have to be carefully taught". Even ignoring the difference between "has more difficulty distinguishing between certain faces" and "racism".
posted by Flunkie at 8:45 AM on June 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


When I lived in Japan, whenever I landed at Vancouver airport (I usually came home once every two years), everyone (Canadians) at the airport looked like someone familiar, like a friend. Now it's the same thing when I return to Japan for visits.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:45 AM on June 20, 2009 [3 favorites]


People of my own skin color look alike to me as well. I'm just not always that great at recognizing people.
posted by grouse at 9:01 AM on June 20, 2009 [4 favorites]


Interesting linguistics tangent: when babies start babbling, they babble all the possible sounds in human languages. But after a few months, they start only babbling the sounds that show up in their own native language(s). And they start to lose the ability to recognise sound distinctions that their own language doesn't make.

So it seems plausible to analogize from that and say that, as babies are exposed to faces, they learn which facial features to focus on in telling one person apart from another, and they learn which facial features aren't relevant -- a person is still the same person if they're smiling or frowning, if they're wearing a hat, etc. They're learning a set of face-reading tools from the people they see every day -- and that set of face-reading tools doesn't necessarily port well to a new context.
posted by Jeanne at 9:01 AM on June 20, 2009 [3 favorites]


Children should be stripped from their families and raised by teleoperated robotic nurse-maids; it is the only way to cure our racist biology.

Ironmouth, who was your professor? His ideas intrigue me and I would like to subscribe to his newsletter.
posted by 0xdeadc0de at 9:22 AM on June 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


Interesting linguistics tangent: when babies start babbling, they babble all the possible sounds in human languages. But after a few months, they start only babbling the sounds that show up in their own native language(s). And they start to lose the ability to recognise sound distinctions that their own language doesn't make.

That's a little oversimplified-- babies DO babble phonemes that are not found in the language(s) that they will later speak natively. And they DO eventually abandon the ones that will not serve a use. But no baby makes all the phonemes possible in human language; before the baby begins modeling language, it just makes erratic formations with its speech organs and lets fly.

Personally, I'm worried that my daughter is going to talk like a New England townie because she seems to have a distinct preference for back vowels and I haven't heard an R sound out her yet. But I know she's not a racist because she loves the Maytals.
posted by Mayor Curley at 9:44 AM on June 20, 2009 [5 favorites]


Yes, folks, yet more proof that if we try hard enough, any difference in response to people with different characteristics no matter how innate, subconscious or biologically adaptive that response is, can be classified as racism.
posted by kcds at 9:50 AM on June 20, 2009


kcds: I don't think the point being suggested here is that these tendencies are in themselves racist so much as that they likely play a key, foundational role in the development of racist attitudes and beliefs through acculturation. Doesn't that seem like a pretty sensible view?
posted by saulgoodman at 10:00 AM on June 20, 2009


Flunkie, apologies: I maybe should've linked to the song as "You have to be *very* carefully taught." The ORE comes from a form of unintentional teaching that begins somewhere between one and three months of age.

And I think there's a huge difference between "has more difficulty distinguishing between certain faces" and "racism". The ORE means you may have difficulty recognizing certain kinds of faces, but it *does not* mean you're racist. It just means your exposure to certain types of faces has been more limited.
posted by shetterly at 10:04 AM on June 20, 2009


Yeah, but you also barely acknowledge the existence of racism, soooo
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:05 AM on June 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


I've always thought that this phenomenon is caused by unconsciously choosing cues to identify people based on what works well on your particular race, because you spend more time around them in childhood. So for example, a white person might pick up on eye color and hair color as major visual cues, and then be stymied when they later encounter the many races for which both are almost always brown.
posted by Mitrovarr at 10:19 AM on June 20, 2009


Possible solution, as suggested by one of my heroes, Eugene Hutz: "Think Locally, Fuck Globally"
posted by kosem at 10:32 AM on June 20, 2009 [7 favorites]


> I've always thought that this phenomenon is caused by unconsciously choosing cues to identify people based on what works well on your particular race, because you spend more time around them in childhood.

I wasn't aware of this phenomenon, but learning about it makes me feel a little bit better about one of the most embarrassing episodes of my adult life. I'm white, and was born and raised in an area where the vast majority of people were also white (it's a bit less homogenous these days), which I suppose would have made me a pretty good test subject for this sort of study.

Years later, when I was in university, a Chinese friend of mine, who had grown up in Hong Kong, showed me his grade one class photo and said something along the lines of "I was a good looking kid, eh?" So I had a look; it was a boys-only class, all of the kids were wearing identical uniforms, and most of them had nigh-on identical black or very dark brown bowl cuts (I think most straight-haired boys of all races, including me, had that hairdo in the '70s). Because they were so young, they all had smooth, unlined faces, and they had been instructed to not smile, so they all had the exact same expression (which is to say, no expression at all) on their faces. And for whatever reason, the photo was taken from a farther distance away than most Canadian class photos, which made identification even harder. God help me, I could not pick him out. When I tried to fake it, my friend caught on and demanded that I point to him. "Is that you?" No." "That's you, right?" "No." After three or four wrong picks I started to flop sweat and my friend, who thought I was just kidding around at first, was getting increasingly annoyed. A couple more wrong picks later, he snatched the photo out of my hand and told me to forget it, probably convinced that white people *did* think all Asians look the same, and I was left to stew in my white liberal guilt. Now I wonder if I would have had an easier time of picking him out if I'd grown up in Toronto, which is much more racially diverse.
posted by The Card Cheat at 10:49 AM on June 20, 2009 [4 favorites]


The only reason I can tell white people apart is different hair colors (and sometimes eyes). I always figured that was the reason why supposedly whites are easier to tell apart.

I read the Ivory trilogy by Doris Egan, which takes place on a planet where the natives all look Indian-ish--tall and dark. The narrator is a short redhead from another planet. In the second book she is continually mistaken for another "barbarian" (non-native), who's from a third planet and a blonde to boot. Theodora keeps saying, "But she's BLONDE, we don't look alike," then figures out that the Ivorans are going off faces more than hair color.
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:51 AM on June 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


Pope Guilty, wtf? I have problems with Critical Race Theory, and I'm not alone in that. I've never denied the existence of racism. Racism is one of my major themes. I really hate pimping myself on metafilter, but I also hate slurs like yours. See Dogland or Chimera or Witch Blood or either of my Bordertown novels or, arguably, any of my novels. Hell, whoever wrote my entry in the feministsf wiki acknowledges that: "His work features strong women characters and people of color."

So, please, just don't go there.
posted by shetterly at 10:55 AM on June 20, 2009


"Korean adults who were adopted by French families during their childhood (aged 3–9 years) demonstrated the same discrimination deficit for Korean faces shown by the native French population."

My experience as a Korean adopted as a baby into an American family conforms to this. I have "the white bias" as much as anyone, having grown up in an overwhelmingly white upstate New York suburb.

That said, I still secretly think Korean babies are the cutest ever. It kinda makes me sad I probably won't be having one. There, I said it. Sigh.
posted by ifjuly at 10:57 AM on June 20, 2009


Two of my closest friends from graduate school are black. They look nothing alike. One is quite dark; the other is light. Eyes, mouths, noses, jawlines all shaped differently. One is quite skinny; the other quite muscular. I was astonished to witness, routinely, well-meaning folks either mistake one for the other or else tell the two of them how much they resembled one another. Runs deep, it seems.
posted by kosem at 10:57 AM on June 20, 2009


(NB: there's clearly a lot more going on in the above anecdotal evidence I posted than the baby effect that is the topic of this FPP. A topic for another day, surely.)
posted by kosem at 11:00 AM on June 20, 2009


I'm married to a social psychologist who specializes is face processing.
I come here to get away.
YOU'RE RUINING MY LIFE!
posted by srboisvert at 11:17 AM on June 20, 2009 [5 favorites]


I also dropped out of grad school because I hated proofreading
posted by srboisvert at 11:20 AM on June 20, 2009 [2 favorites]


I've always thought that this phenomenon is caused by unconsciously choosing cues to identify people based on what works well on your particular race, because you spend more time around them in childhood. So for example, a white person might pick up on eye color and hair color as major visual cues, and then be stymied when they later encounter the many races for which both are almost always brown.

Well, it's an interesting theory ... but ...

Four or five years ago, I decided to join Toastmaster's to try to improve my public speaking. This particular branch of the Toastmasters was a bunch of old white people, with the exception of one other Asian dude.

Now I am 6'3" and 200-210 pounds depending on how often I've been to the Indian buffet recently. This other guy was maybe half a foot shorter and fifty pounds lighter. I wore my hair short. He wore his long.

Despite this, most of the people there seemed to have the most difficult time telling the two of us apart.

And I don't attribute this to malice or anything; they seemed to be pretty nice people.

But it made me uncomfortable enough that I stopped going. I just couldn't understand how you can't tell the difference between two people, one of whom is much bigger than the other, never mind the fact that we were both Asian.
posted by Comrade_robot at 11:25 AM on June 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm terrible at recognising everyone's faces, and rely much more on people's voice, gait, etc. I don't any extra problems recognising people of different races; instead my problems only really start when differentiating between broadly similar-looking people (same race, sex and build) who share strong accents. I think it's because it messes up the speech and intonation patterns that I've learned to spot variations of.

jenfullmoon - ...then figures out that the Ivorans are going off faces more than hair color.

My girlfriend tells me that, in Cantonese slang, race often isn't thought of in terms of skin colour. For example, white prople aren't "white", we're "big-noses". For some reason, I find this hilarious.
posted by metaBugs at 11:40 AM on June 20, 2009


I learned about this from a guy who was of Japanese ancestory (and presumably not adopted by French parents).

He said his score was abysmal.

On the other hand, the quiz is about nationality, not individual identity which implies (gasp) some sort of racism.

I'd make a joke about knife fighting here, you know, for Sicilian heritage month, but I'm just not awake enough.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 11:50 AM on June 20, 2009


I think all babies look alike. So there you go, you slobbering little racists.
posted by grounded at 12:58 PM on June 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


Separate from this, but related is face blindness, (wiki), a neurological condition. Someone with face blindness can walk right past his or her mother and not recognize her.

Bill Choisser, from the first link, uses the visual impressions of beard, hair, and how pants ride on legs to identify people.
posted by sebastienbailard at 1:07 PM on June 20, 2009


The Card Cheat, if it makes you feel any better, the worst thing ever when I visit my grandmother (other than all the half feral cats) is when she gets out the old class photos and then gets huffy when I can't pick out her or my grandfather. It's a group shot of little kids with clothes and haircuts from another decade! They all look the same no matter what race they are!
posted by little e at 1:12 PM on June 20, 2009 [2 favorites]


"Korean adults who were adopted by French families during their childhood (aged 3–9 years) demonstrated the same discrimination deficit for Korean faces shown by the native French population."

Well yeah, I think this is fairly obvious. It's not like being Asian inherently gives you the ability to tell Asian people apart. I grew up in a small town where we were pretty much the only Asian family, and I probably have an easier time telling apart white people than Asian or black people for example.

I've had the same experience as Kokuryu when coming back to the US after traveling in China, though. I keep trying to guess where all the white people are from (Russians? Germans? French?) which I always did when encountering Westerners in China.

I learned about this from a guy who was of Japanese ancestory

That alllooksame quiz always pissed me off because half the people are making funny faces. A large part of how Asians tell each other apart has to do with language/accent and clothing anyway. Though for what it's worth, since I moved to Toronto all the Koreans here mistake me as one of their own for some reason.
posted by pravit at 1:32 PM on June 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


he snatched the photo out of my hand and told me to forget it, probably convinced that white people *did* think all Asians look the same, and I was left to stew in my white liberal guilt.

I hate it when people expect me to recognize them in photos where they're young. I can't tell people of any race apart who are below the age of 14 or so.
posted by pravit at 1:36 PM on June 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


he snatched the photo out of my hand and told me to forget it, probably convinced that white people *did* think all Asians look the same, and I was left to stew in my white liberal guilt.

Well, I think that's the point of this, that there's actually a learned basis for this inability to identify individuals within a group outside of your own (socially, not racially) and so it isn't racism (ie not willing to tell them apart, or going out of your way to pretend you can't) but a foible of the way our brains process images. I think it's pretty cool, actually, and makes me glad my kids have been surrounded by children of most major races since they were six months old.
posted by davejay at 9:11 PM on June 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


Younger people actually do look more like each other, and the same kid could age up into quite different looking adults, and extremely different looking old people. Paper on the subject here (PDF). This applies to family resemblance, ie your siblings and you really did look more alike the younger you were; and race is just family resemblance writ large.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 9:13 PM on June 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


Personally, I'm worried that my daughter is going to talk like a New England townie because she seems to have a distinct preference for back vowels and I haven't heard an R sound out her yet.

My older daughter sounded like a Boston Brahmin until she was about five. My niece, the older of a twin set of girls, is four and still sounds like one. Her twin does not.

I'm not sure what causes that, but it is curious.
posted by Mental Wimp at 10:04 PM on June 20, 2009


I think it's pretty cool, actually, and makes me glad my kids have been surrounded by children of most major races since they were six months old.

I think as long as we keep trending the way we are, the "races" will become so intermixed as to render the term meaningless to most undiscerning among us. When we have one big spectrum without dividing lines, knowledge like this will become obsolete.
posted by Mental Wimp at 10:08 PM on June 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


The narrator is a short redhead from another planet. In the second book she is continually mistaken for another "barbarian" (non-native), who's from a third planet and a blonde to boot.

That sounds a lot like an amusing aside from The Lady and the Monk, wherein the author--an American of Indian descent in Kyoto--finds that everyone keeps telling me he looks like Michael Jackson or any other non-Japanese figure they're familiar with.

As for me: white guy from fairly white part of America and I think a big part of why I hated Gosford Park was that I couldn't tell any of the (British, aristocratic, faintly soggy-looking) characters apart.
posted by kittyprecious at 6:50 AM on June 21, 2009


(er, telling him: I'm not Pico Iyer, much as I wish I were)
posted by kittyprecious at 6:51 AM on June 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


having enjoyed the fpp and the thread so much having grown up in multicultural malaysia as an expat indian attending the 40 nationality international school, I do wish I could find something clever to add at the end of a long midsummer weekend. but sadly no, other than thanks for the fascinating insights and conversations
posted by infini at 9:29 AM on June 21, 2009


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