'Other-race effect': Clues to why 'they' all look alike

June 30, 2011, Northwestern University

Northwestern University researchers have provided new biological evidence suggesting that the brain works differently when memorizing the face of a person from one's own race than when memorizing a face from another race.

Their study -- which used EEG recordings to measure brain activity -- sheds light on a well-documented phenomenon known as the "other-race effect." One of the most replicated psychology findings, the other-race effect finds that people are less likely to remember a face from a racial group different from their own.

"Scientists have put forward numerous ideas about why people do not recognize other-race faces as well as same-race faces," says Northwestern psychology professor Ken Paller, who with psychology professor Joan Chiao and Heather Lucas co-authored "Why some faces won't be remembered: Brain potentials illuminate successful versus unsuccessful encoding for same-race and other-race faces."

The discovery of a neural marker of successful encoding of other-race faces will help put these ideas to the test, according to Paller, who directs the Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences.

"The ability to accurately remember faces is an important with potentially serious consequences," says doctoral student Lucas, lead author of the recently published study in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. "It's merely embarrassing to forget your spouse's boss, but when an eyewitness incorrectly remembers a face, the consequence can be a wrongful ," she adds.

The Northwestern team found that brain activity increases in the very first 200 to 250 milliseconds upon seeing both same-race and other-race faces. To their surprise, however, they found that the amplitude of that increased brain activity only predicts whether an other-race face (not a same-race face) is later remembered.

"There appears to be a critical phase shortly after an other-race face appears that determines whether or not that face will be remembered or forgotten," Lucas says. "In other words, the process of laying down a memory begins almost immediately after one first sees the face."

Previous research has associated this very early phase -- what is known as the N200 brain potential -- with the perceptual process of individuation. That process involves identifying personally unique facial features such as the shape of the eyes and nose and the spatial configuration of various facial features.

When the researchers asked the 18 white study participants to view same-race faces and to commit them to memory, the individuation process indexed by N200 appeared "almost automatic -- so robust and reliable that it actually was irrelevant as to whether a face was remembered or not," says Lucas.

Minutes later, the participants were given a recognition test that included new faces along with some that were previously viewed. The researchers analyzed brain activity during initial face viewing as a function of whether or not each face was ultimately remembered or forgotten on the recognition test.

The N200 waves were large for all same-race faces, regardless of whether or not they later were successfully remembered. In contrast, N200 waves were larger for other-race faces that were remembered than for other-race faces that were forgotten.

Of course, not all same-race faces were successfully recognized, the researchers say. Accordingly, their study also identified that predicted whether or not a same-race face would be remembered. A specific brain wave starting at about 300 milliseconds and lasting for several hundred milliseconds was associated with what the psychologists call "elaborative encoding."

In contrast to individuation (which involves rapidly identifying unique physical attributes from faces), elaborative encoding is a more deliberate process of inferring attributes. For example, you might note that a face reminds you of someone you know, that its expression appears friendly or shy, or it looks like the face of a scientist or police officer.

Making these types of social inferences increases the likelihood that a face will be remembered.

"However, this strategy only works if the process of individuation also occurred successfully -- that is, if the physical attributes unique to a particular face already have been committed to memory," Lucas says. "And our study found that individuation is not always engaged with other-race faces."

Why is individuation so fragile for other-race faces? One possibility, the researchers say, is that many people simply have less practice seeing and remembering other-race faces.

"People tend to have more frequent and extensive interactions with same-race than with other-race individuals, particularly racial majority members," Lucas says. As a result, their brains may be less adept at finding the facial information that distinguishes other-race faces from one another compared to distinguishing among faces of their own .

Another possible explanation involves "social categorization," or the tendency to group others into social categories by race. "Prior research has found that when we label and group others according to race we end up focusing more on attributes that group members tend to have in common -- such as skin color -- and less on attributes that individuate one group member from others," Lucas says.

As a result, smaller N200 brain potentials for other-race faces -- particularly those that were not remembered later -- could indicate that race-specifying features of these were given more attention.

The Northwestern researchers expect future research to build on their findings in the continuing effort to better understand the other-race effect. "That research also will need to focus more on face recognition in minorities, given that the bulk of research to date has examined majority-white populations," Lucas says.

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11 comments

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cijbm
2 / 5 (4) Jun 30, 2011
Why are you printing this sort of obviously racist propoganda, race is not genetic, race is a cultural concept used to make one set of people feel superior or threatened by another group of people so that they can be manipulated into carrying out actions that they would not normally consider e.g. genocide.
What they are saying here is that one similar looking group of people find it difficult to differentiate other groups of people that do not look similar and using brain scanners to justify some sort of racist agenda.
mmm got to say that might be the case on a small hick farm in the North West of America somewhere but in a large city never had a problem.

S
sstritt
1 / 5 (2) Jun 30, 2011
race is not genetic, race is a cultural concept used to make one set of people feel superior or threatened by another group of people so that they can be manipulated into carrying out actions that they would not normally consider e.g. genocide

Get off your PC soapbox! Obviously racial differences exist. Your comments are one of the starkest demonstrations of how far PC has gone to blind science and society in general to the bloody obvious! This is why the TSA will remove the diaper off of a 95 year old woman with cancer, but won't dare to profile a 20 year old arab man with a Koran and an Al Qaida T-shirt!
PaulieMac
5 / 5 (4) Jun 30, 2011
'Racism' the belief that one racial type is intrinsically superior to another. It is not 'racist' to acknowledge that racial groups exist.

And of course 'race' is genetic. Why do you think a person of Occidental heritage differs somewhat in appearance from a person of Oriental heritage?

Ironic, also, that your post - however noble your intentions may have been while typing - expresses an overt sense of superiority over someone living on
a small hick farm in the North West of America
alienproxy
5 / 5 (4) Jun 30, 2011
I'd like to see data with regard to people like myself (black) who were raised all their lives in white suburban areas with a dearth of black faces.

I have a feeling similar effects would occur for me when seeing the faces of other blacks, and maybe then they'll stop feeding the sensationalist mill and call it something other than the "other-race effect".

As the article states:

>"People tend to have more frequent and extensive interactions with same-race than with other-race individuals, particularly racial majority members," Lucas says. As a result, their brains may be less adept at finding the facial information that distinguishes other-race faces from one another compared to distinguishing among faces of their own racial group.
natalulu
5 / 5 (1) Jul 01, 2011
I am a Dr of Cognitive Psychology who also researches the 'other-race effect' as well as many other phenomenon in face recognition. To say when I first began my research that I was sceptical of the true existence of an 'other race effect' is an understatement believing that surely it was no more than a sterotype, the 'they all look alike' notion. However, after carrying out numerous studies using a variety of race faces and a variety of race participants it is clear that the effect does exist, and importantly not due to racist beliefs of participants or agendas of the researchers!
Alienproxy: Your point and experience is certainly of interest. It does seem that experience and exposure is a fundamental to the effect. There has been studies of children adopted into families of differing race to themselves that have show just what you have suggested about yourself. For instance a Korean Child adopted into a Euro-Caucasian family identifying the Caucasian faces bettter.
RobertKarlStonjek
5 / 5 (3) Jul 01, 2011
All sheep look alike, but don't get me wrong: some of my best friends are sheep :)

But seriously, it is well known that farmers *really can* tell individual stock by their faces. A report on physorg last week indicated that perfumers can discriminate odours very accurately, musicians can discriminate motifs and so on.

The general rule is 'greater resolution where it is needed' and this is laid down more easily in youth than maturity. Face recognition is just one area that has sub-areas ie recognition of particular races. It might be interesting to study those people who typically interact multiculturally such as teachers that have mixed race classes, especially prominent in some Australian cities where almost equal classroom populations of Asian, African, Caucasoid and others are to be found.
zafouf
3 / 5 (1) Jul 02, 2011
It's great to see this kind of research. So often white people are made to feel embarassed and guilty about this sort of thing: if they don't recognize a black person, they are revealing their racism. I wonder if black people have a harder time remembering white faces.
Although the study makes no comment on whether there's a correlation between racism and not recognizing faces of that race.
zafouf
not rated yet Jul 02, 2011
PS I think there is also an effect, that if you dislike someone, you're less likely to remember their face. I think I've noticed that - and forgetting their name, of course. Unless they really are an enemy, then they become memorable again.
So actually there might be a correlation between someone being racist against a particular race, and not recognizing faces of that race.
ryggesogn2
not rated yet Jul 02, 2011
'They all look alike' until you start paying attention to your observations.
I think I can do pretty well distinguishing what part of Asia someone is from and I am not Asian.
zafouf
not rated yet Jul 03, 2011
@ryqqesoqn2 I think if you think about it you'll find it's *harder* to remember people of other races, though.
I recognize people of other races fine myself - but it's a bit more difficult than for white people (I'm white).
Part of it might be that a big thing that one notices with another race, is their race. This might occupy a lot of one's memory-space for that person.
Some people just have generic faces. The other day I saw a white woman and I asked her if I'd met her before. She said no and said she got that a lot.
physpuppy
not rated yet Jul 08, 2011
Well there was this story about this guy who got lost and couldn't find his way home although the area looked familiar.

He saw a little girl playing and decided to swallow his pride and ask her for directions. He said,"Little girl, I'm lost, and maybe I look familiar to you. Do you know where my house is?"

She answered, "Yes, it's just across the street, daddy."

Just figured some light humor is needed here.

I do believe that recognition is related to the people that you have exposure to. I know when I was very young, all women in their 20-30's looked pretty much alike, no matter the race.

Not anymore :-)

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