People are poor at cross-race facial recognition because they concentrate on racial features rather than individual features, according to new study

December 02, 2000

WASHINGTON - Why do people of one racial group fail to recognize faces from another racial group? This so-called cross-race recognition deficit, a topic of debate within the social science community, is sometimes explained by suggesting that people have less experience seeing faces from other races. But, a new research finding by Kent State University psychologist Daniel T. Levin, Ph.D., suggests that the information people "see" when looking at the face of a person of another race is information that allows them to classify the person as White or Black but is not information which allows them to individualize the person, such as the color of their eyes or shape of their nose.

Dr. Levin's conclusions, as published in the December issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, published by the American Psychological Association, is based on experiments designed to determine the kind of information people retain when looking at cross-race faces.

In his first experiment, Levin compared how well people recognize faces of other races with how readily they locate these faces in a visual search task. He made two average faces, one derived from 16 Black faces morphed together and a second created when 16 White faces were morphed together. These Black and White faces were at either ends of a cross-race spectrum of faces. The middle face was created by morphing all 32 images together.

Using these faces, Levin tested 25 participants (the participants were nearly all White, with a few Asians also included) on their ability to locate a Black face amid a series of White faces or visa versa. Next, the same participants were shown yearbook photos of 16 White and 16 Black male students. They were then shown another set of photos and asked to indicate whether any of the second set also appeared in the yearbook photos.

As expected, on the face memory test using yearbook photos, participants were better at recognizing White faces than they were at recognizing Black ones. But, paradoxically, participants who performed most poorly on the yearbook photo test were most likely in the first experiment - a discrimination experiment -- to locate Black faces among the White faces more quickly than the White faces among Black faces.

This occurs, according to Levin, because the information people focus on when looking at a face of another racial group is information that is optimal for group classification (that's a Black man") rather than individual recognition ("that's a man with a mustache and a down-turned mouth").

"Participants who were poor at recognizing black faces appear to code blackness as a visual feature while they may not code whiteness at all," says Dr. Levin. "The problem is not that we can't code the details of cross-race faces; it's that we don't. Instead, we substitute group information, or information about the race, for information about the features that help us tell individual people apart."

In further experiments, ones designed to force people to look for discriminating features between Black faces, Levin showed that participants who were poorest at recognizing Black faces on the recognition task made the most accurate race-based discriminations between Black faces on the discrimination task. These findings discount the similarity hypothesis and show that people's perceptual skills can extend to cross-race faces. These results are important because they help explain the question of why the cross-race recognition deficit exists. Such knowledge could be put to use in police training for example to make accurate and detailed descriptions across races more likely.
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Article: "Race as a Visual Feature: Using Visual Search and Perceptual Discrimination Tasks to Understand Face Categories and the Cross-Race Recognition Deficit" Daniel T. Levin, Ph.D., Kent State University. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, (Vol. 129, No. 4).

Dr. Levin can be reached by telephone at 330-672-3785 or by email at dlevin@kent.edu

Full Text of article available from APA Public Affairs Office or on the web at: http://www.apa.org/journals/xqe/xqe1294559.html

The American Psychological Association (APA), in Washington, DC, is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world's largest association of psychologists. APA's membership includes more than 159,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 53 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 59 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession and as a means of promoting human welfare.

American Psychological Association

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