The Difficulties of Distinguishing Faces of Other Races

“I don’t know if that’s him or not. They all look alike to me.”

It’s a pretty common statement. Or at least, it’s a pretty common thought because saying out loud is a pretty racist and offensive remark. But maybe it shouldn’t be. Because you know what? It’s a scientifically proven fact that people are able to remember faces from their own race much better than those of other races.

And scientists from Northwestern University are trying to figure out why.

Some theories go along the lines of the idea that people are just more used to seeing faces from their own race and are able to spot differences more easily and quickly. Another guesses that intrinsic thought processes immediately group “others” together based on obvious shared characteristics – such as skin color – instead of storing the individual characterstics.

Both have support from prior experiments. When people are trained in facial recognition tasks and begin searching for traits and characteristics unique to individuals across ethnicities, the memory bias disappears. And when people are asked to remember faces from an “outside” group of the same race – for example students from the same college versus other colleges – the same memory difficulties appear.

Whatever the reasons, psychology professors Ken Paller and Joan Chiao decided to look at the brain activities behind them.

The team measured the brain activity of 18 white volunteers while they tried to remember a set of faces both from their own ethnicity and others with an EEG.

As soon as somebody sees a face, there is usually a spike in brain activity in the very first 200 to 250 milliseconds called the N200 brain potential. This period has been associated previously with identifying facial features like the shape of eyes and nose or the spatial configuration of attributes. Then, a second spike in brain activity about 300 milliseconds after seeing the face that lasts several hundred milliseconds lays down elaborative encoding.

Unlike individuation, elaborative encoding puts social inferences together with a face, like if it looks nice or mean, a scientist or librarian, or if it looks like a famous movie star. These types of memory formations are what make the faces really stick.

However, elaborative encoding is dependent on the initial recognition of distinguishing features, indicated by the N200 spike previously described. And that initial spike didn’t always happen.

Every single face from the volunteers’ own race caused the N200 spike. This doesn’t mean every face was remembered, but the potential for it to be remembered was there. In contrast, not every face from other ethnicities invoked the initial spike, meaning those faces didn’t even stand a chance at being remembered.

Again, why this is isn’t clear. It could be for many reasons. But I think it’s interesting that we’re hard-wired for remembering faces from our own ethnicity.

So don’t feel so bad about difficulties distinguishing and remembering faces from other races. It doesn’t mean you’re racist, just human, and that you have to try that much harder to make up for it.


About bigkingken

A science writer dedicated to proving that the Big Ten - or the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, if you will - is more than athletics.
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