They don't all look the same – could better facial discrimination lead to less racial discrimination?

By Ed Yong | January 23, 2009 8:30 am

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchIt’s been a big week. With a simple words, Barack Obama became the first black President of a country whose history has been so haunted by the spectre of racial prejudice. His election and inauguration are undoubtedly proud moments but they must not breed complacency. Things may be changing outwardly, but problems remain.

For a start, it goes without saying that many people, even the most liberal and left-wing among us, still harbour unconscious prejudices against members of other races. These “implicit biases” may be hidden, but their effects are often not. For example, a study published last year showed that unconscious biases can hold greater sway over a person’s voting decisions than their conscious, rational preferences.

Their influence becomes apparent even when we simply look at people of other races. It’s a well-known fact that people generally find it more difficult  to distinguish between the faces of people from other ethnic groups than those of their own. This so-called “other-race effect” is the phenomenon behind claims that “they all look the same”. But looks are in the eye of the beholder and the other-race effect can be negated through experience with members of different races. For example, African infants who are adopted by white families develop a bias in distinguishing between faces that matches those of white children.

Sophie Lebrecht from Brown University sensed a link between poorer facial discrimination and greater racial discrimination. Her idea is simple: if someone finds it hard to tell the difference between people of a certain race, they will be more likely to characterise that entire group with broad stereotypes. When the lines between individuals blur, generalities start seeping in and implicit biases have a stronger influence. But if that’s the case, there may be a way around it – indeed, Lebrecht found that by training people to better discriminate between faces of other races, she could help to reduce their biased attitudes towards those races.

Lebrecht recruited 20 white volunteers and found that they showed typical other-race effects. She asked them to memorise 24 Chinese and Black faces and later, say which they recognised from a larger set of 48.  Lebrecht also tested the volunteers for signs of implicit biases using a test called the “affective lexical priming score” or ALPS. Like similar tests, this one relies on the fact that relationships that certain mental tasks are more difficult if they challenge a person’s hidden prejudices.

Lovehatemalk.gifThe volunteers saw a series of white, black or oriental faces, each paired with a word. The word could be positive (such as “love”), negative (“hate”), neutral (“tree”) or nonsense (“malk”) and the volunteer’s job iwas to classify it accordingly. If the volunteers bore any hidden prejudices against, say, black people, their response times would be quicker if black faces were paired with negative words, and slower if they were paired with positive words.

After these initial tasks, the volunteers were split into two groups. One was asked to categorise various faces as either Chinese or Black; all they had to do was to consider the faces on a very general level. The other volunteers were faced with a more difficult training exercise, where they learned to press a different key for each of eight Black faces (and the same key for each of eight Chinese faces). They had to learn to recognise the headshots on an individual basis.

Finally, Lebrecht put all the volunteers through the recognition test and the ALPS a second time. As expected, Lebrecht found that those who were trained became better at telling the difference between faces of other races. Their scores in the recognition test improved, while the volunteers who just had to categorise the faces were no better the second time round.

Better yet, the trained group showed fewer implicit biases against black faces. Before the training, they took significantly longer to respond when Black faces were paired with positive words than when they were paired with negative ones. Afterwards, these delayed responses were, on average, nowhere to be seen. Lebrecht even found that volunteers who showed the greatest progress in discriminating between ethnically diverse faces also showed the greatest declines in their implicit biases. For comparison, the volunteers who merely categorised Black and Asian faces still bore the same hidden prejudices that they showed in the first test.

It’s not just experience with other races that made a difference – after all, both groups of volunteers saw the same sets of faces and only one developed smaller implicit biases. To Lebrecht, it was the motivation to consider the faces as individuals rather than members of a group that did the trick. She isn’t claiming that this training is a complete or foolproof solution to the problem of unconscious racial bias, merely that it could go some way towards reducing it. Perhaps it will find uses among immigration workers, teachers, policemen or other professions who regularly come across people from diverse ethnic backgrounds.  

However, it’s worth noting that the study had a very small sample size, a weakness that Lebrecht acknowledges. That doesn’t invalidate the study, but it does leave its conclusions on shakier territory. Nonetheless, it’s an interesting piece of work with fascinating social ramifications; it surely deserves to be replicated with bigger numbers.

Reference: Sophie Lebrecht, Lara J. Pierce, Michael J. Tarr, James W. Tanaka (2009). Perceptual Other-Race Training Reduces Implicit Racial Bias PLoS ONE, 4 (1) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0004215

More on race and stereotypes: 

 

Comments (19)

  1. In a similar vein, I’ve often thought it was easier for blacks to become less-biased than whites. Many whites in the USA rarely interact with black people. The demographics of some areas mean they rarely have a chance to say more than hello, if that.
    Blacks, generally, are more likely to know whites in the course of their everyday transactions. So it’s easier to see beyond the surface.
    Of course, bigotries can be reinforced by negative interactions — but having lived in both monochromatic and mixed neighborhoods, the urbane people in mixed neighboohoods were generally more likely to see beyond color, or to gauge someone on the content of their interaction.

  2. Hope you don’t mind a quick anecdote: I had a coworker once who taught English in Japan. She told me that many Japanese were entirely discombobulated at having to speak to a white woman, although she was fairly fluent. Taking a taxi was a major pain for her.
    She developed a strategy. She would frame her request in her mind and try to enter the cab *before the driver saw her*. This way, he would hear what she said, in Japanese, and understand it.
    But if he saw her first, all too often they went into brainlock, as if thinking, ‘Omigod, a white woman, however will I speak to her?’

  3. catgirl

    ombudsben, I’ve seen something similar to that. In college, I had many foreign professors, with varying ability to speak English well. I had no problem understanding them, except maybe one ore two. But, some of other students would complain that they weren’t doing well in class because “the teacher can’t speak English”. I never understood what they were talking about. It’s like they just stopped trying to listen as soon as they heard an accent. Or maybe it was just an excuse for not doing well in that class.

  4. I’ve noticed the opposite effect as well. Our family is multiracial, and I’ve noticed that since I had kids, I have trouble identifying or remembering racial characteristics unless I concentrate.

  5. LOLa

    @catgirl – Which came first, the frustration or the failure? There are several studies that suggest distractions may lead to a decreased ability complete tasks. It’s great that you could decipher your foreign professors, but it’s a major problem when students are required to take basic classes from professors who can’t reach them, and I wouldn’t write it off as an excuse.

  6. I also find that listening to a person with a new accent is hard in the beginning, but the more experience you get, the more understandable it becomes, as with a professor at lectures, for example.

  7. MattK

    re. profs with accents. I had two profs who hailed from China. One had a thick accent (but still totally understandable) and the other had almost no accent at all. The prof with the thick accent had trouble with some simple words like ‘there’ but rattled all technical terms of with ease. Anyway, he knew his accent could be thick and took extra care in providing lecture note printouts to everyone. There is no way that anyone actually had trouble figuring out what was going on in classes taught by either prof yet I overheard students complaining several times (even about the guy with almost no accent). I feel pretty comfortable hypothesizing that those students were simply bigoted rather than hard of hearing.

  8. I think a little guided training can be really helpful. I used to recognise people largely based on their eye and hair colour. Which generally works fine for caucasians but far less well for other races.
    In the end I asked a black friend of mine what she looked at in recognising people – she mentioned lip shape, nose shape and eye separation. Once I started to pay attention to these features, I started to get much better at recognising people from different races… but without having someone to ask, it would have taken me much longer.

  9. jr

    Lets not get to carried away. Antisemitism has a long and inglorious history and in that case I am pretty sure the bigots could tell one of their victims from another one.

  10. Jon D

    Lirone, you made an interesting point there.
    Has anyone heard of any studies that’ve been done where the volunteers are asked to look at a picture of another person of the same race as them, and the researchers track their eye movement to see which features get looked at the most?
    I’ve heard a fair bit of anecdotal evidence, and it was pretty much exactly as Lirone said above: White people look at eye and especially hair colour, while black people look at lips, noses and eye shape/situation.

  11. Richard Simons

    When I first met my wife’s Chinese friend I could not see any emotions on her face but after a few days they became obvious. Another friend, who had also had little previous contact with Chinese people, commented on having the same experience. Our speculation was that the differences in the facial features were sufficient to throw off the usual cues we were using.
    Chinese friends have said they had similar initial difficulties. Have studies been done on the ability of people to detect emotions on the faces of unfamiliar races? Of course, some of it may be cultural. I’ve known Americans who had difficulty in determining when Brits were not being serious.
    Further to Ombudsben’s comment about the person’s experience in Japan, an American friend of Chinese ancestry was in Japan with her (German) husband and a Scottish couple. In restaurants the waiter always addressed her but she knew no Japanese so would look baffled. The Scotsman spoke fluent Japanese and would place the order. The waiter invariably took down the order but otherwise completely ignored the Scotsman and continued to address all his comments to her. She said it never seemed to register with them that she did not understand and that he was doing all the talking.

  12. yogi-one

    Has anyone done a study where they show the faces of people but with the color completely removed?
    If there was no skin or hair color, and you had to go by facial characteristics alone, could you distinguish between the races?
    Asian Indians, for example have all the facial types, as do East Africans. They are not the only ethnic groups that have such a diversity of features, of course.And of course there are white people with big lips and wide noses.
    It would be interesting if it turns out, that without skin color, you can’t tell with any significant degree of certainty whether a person is from Kansas or Addis Ababa, or Bombay.
    A number of such studies could establish, I think, whether people are making judgments based on skin color alone.
    Such a study would investigate the very heart of racism, which depends on the premise that skin-color is the source of undesirable social traits.

  13. Beowulff

    I’d agree that it’s probably more the fact that people of other ethnicities are seen as individuals that lowers the bias, not so much the training in facial recognition itself. It makes sense, since I’ve also read that simple exposure to gay people and getting to know them as individuals tends to diminish anti-gay bias as well (Altemyers’s “The authoritarians” comes to mind as an example that mentions this).
    Interesting however that such a simple exercise can have an effect already. Imagine what some actual interaction could do.

  14. I was just looking at these related articles, regarding facial differences.
    http://discovermagazine.com/2008/nov/15-why-darwin-would-have-loved-botox
    All the muscles of our faces develop from a strip of cells at the base of the embryonic head… as in lampreys.
    The transition to land brought major changes to the faces of our ancestors. They stopped breathing water through gills, and the gill-supporting muscles in the face took on new functions, like controlling the throat to swallow food.
    http://discovermagazine.com/2009/jan/091
    Does facial musculature vary from person to person? The question is not easy to answer because facial muscles are flat and can mingle with other muscles. And while most muscles in the body attach to bone, facial muscles often attach only to skin. [and compare the chubby cheeks of humans vs ape cousins]

  15. Raven's Child

    Based on my experience with animals and people, I’d say first reaction to skin is a likely reaction. Most people I’ve met who don’t have experience with animals will classify first based broadly on color. My 75 pound German shepherd and 50 pound non GSD mix cross were both black and tan, but different patterns, yet my neighbors were convinced I had only one dog. Seeing that in action led me to understand why most people couldn’t tell my Abyssinian cats (all ruddy) apart. Same with all of the grey Arabian horses at the barn.
    I wonder how years spent taking care nearly identically marked animals would influence my scores on the test.

  16. Ed, were they using the same faces for ALPS that they used for the individuation training? If the ALPS faces were the same faces they learned to individuate, I don’t think the experimenters showed a general reduction in racial bias, but merely verified the existence of the “I don’t think of you as one of them” phenomenon.

  17. As for voting with or against biases, Lester & Charlie solved that during the 2008 US Presidential election:
    http://bit.ly/3KoORm
    (satire)

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