Apr 5, 2019 in Sociology

The Other-Race Effect in Face Perception


Human psychology can be characterized as a set of difficult algorithms that have developed for ages and constitute our behavioral pattern. The evolution of these algorithms allowed humans to cooperate, solve problems and be an actual part of society. However, some mechanisms of human psychology fail to assist people in accordance with their expectations. Among them are certain reflexes, which have developed for thousands of years and may not fit in a modern rapidly changing world. The other-race effect, which restricts our face recognition and memory abilities, seems to be one of such psychological phenomena. As a result of it, people struggle when recognizing the representatives of other races, which might prevent them from establishing new contacts or make them feel uncomfortable. This paper aims at identifying the set of difficulties associated with the problem of the other-race effect. Its general aim is the analysis of typical factors which affect people’s failure in face recognition when seeing the representatives of other races. Thus, the research question of the paper is “Which psychological factors are associated with the failure of face recognition when facing other-race counterparts?” The results of the research suggest finding characteristics that impact human perception regarding face recognition of people of other races. 

The Nature of the Other-Face Effect

The other-race effect is an essential psychological feature of humans, and it has adequate theoretical explanation. Thus, there is nothing unnatural in being puzzled and experiencing a discomfort when differentiating between people of other races. As Pomeroy puts it, this limitation “plagues people of all colors: we humans are notoriously poor at distinguishing between the members of races different from our own”. In general, when addressing the history of any race, one may claim that the representatives of one race used to communicate mostly with their race mates. For instance, several centuries ago, the abilities for travelling were significantly limited. This resulted in the fact that people in Africa, Asia, Europe and North America communicated with the representatives of their races throughout their whole lives. Consequently, biological mechanisms of face recognition developed the ability to function when applied to the representatives of one race. This argument can be supported with a scholarly theory, which indicates that people tend to develop “perceptual expertise” for the characteristics of people of the similar race. This theory is called perceptual expertise and stresses out the fact that people have differential experience encoding same-race and other-race faces. The typical example of this is that Caucasians tend to recognize variability in hair colors whereas African Americans have an increased perception for skin tones. The reason for this is that Caucasians have a vast variety of hair colors as well as experience of their identification. In their turn, African Americans have greater experience of recognizing their counterparts of the same skin color, which increases their expertise in this domain. The theory of perceptual expertise presumes that people of different races obtain and develop learning models of recognition based on their experience. These models suggest that “infrequent interracial contact results in perceivers developing greater experience distinguishing between and encoding faces belonging to members of their own race relative to those of other races”. Therefore, different expertise level causes people better distinguish the faces of their own race rather than unfamiliar ones. Consequently, this theory implies that people can raise their skills of recognizing the representatives of different races through practice. 

One more theory explaining the other-race effect in face perception is social categorization. According to it, people recognize the representatives of other races, but use more general and noticeable characteristics. As Levin indicates, “the problem is not that we can’t code the details of cross-race faces – it’s that we don’t”. Moreover, some scholars develop this theory further and state that people tend to separate their counterparts into those having “in-group” and “out-group” status. Thus, in-group representatives share similar categories such as race, educational level, or socioeconomic status. The theory of social categorization states that the other-race effect is caused by the difference in social cognitions, when a person opposes in-group and out-group representatives. The first reaction of figuring out in-group and out-group members is the acknowledgment of the ethnicity of a person, which results in triggering an out-group cue in the case of seeing an out-group face. Therefore, this model of recognition suggests that in case a person is labeled as a member of the out-group, the identifying individual rejects encoding and storing other features. It is evident that people vary in numerous aspects of how their faces look, such as width, length, the size of the nose, and eye color. However, according to the theory of social categorization, once the other race representatives were “labeled” on the basis of the most evident feature, other features are not needed. A peculiar aspect of this psychological phenomenon is that personal attitudes towards various races do not play any role in the process of face identification. As Pica noted, “prejudiced and non-prejudiced people are equally likely to fall victim to the other-race effect”. Moreover, other factors do not interfere with this phenomenon either. For instance, there was an experiment where people had to find the criminal suspect after watching the video with the evidence. The result of this experiment showed that among 40 participants, the majority failed to cope with the task when the criminal was a representative of other race. Thus, the participants misidentified the other-race suspect along with the correct identification in case the suspect represented their own race.

Since the other-race effect is a problematic aspect for certain occupations as well as presents a general problem in multiracial communities, scholars attempt to identify its main features. The reason for this is that with knowing the factors that result in face recognition failure, scientists would be able to develop a technology that will boost this ability. In its turn, this would reduce the number of misidentifications of criminals as well as make life easier in an interracial community. One of the main features in face recognition is categorical thinking, which leads to comparisons between the features of other-race representatives. The cross-race effect of such comparisons is that people tend to find little differences in representatives of other races as compared to the representative of their own race. Therefore, when people see faces of another race, they tend to use rapid categorization based on the feature of a race while omitting other individual features. Consequently, there is a need for the analysis of the studies which explore the processes and features associated with the phenomenon of the other-race face perception. 

Experiments Addressing the Issue

The issue of the other-race face perception has been studied with the help of various experiments, which have focused on a broad range of the related aspects. Among them is the other-race face perception among children and adults, which has been analyzed by means of different approaches such as matching, substituting, partial recognition and others. Various accents in the studies reveal different facts about the phenomenon of the other-race face perception, increasing thereby the awareness of psychological triggers within the human mind. For instance, in the study by Tanaka, Kiefer and Bukach, the participants were to perform a delayed perceptual matching task. Its general idea was that the test stimuli consisted of isolated pieces or face parts embedded within a whole face. As a result, the participants demonstrated an advantage when recognizing a complete face only regarding the test samples presenting own-race faces. A peculiar feature about the result of the experiment is the differences of race representatives in race perceptions. Thus, while the White participants were able to recognize the representatives of their race only, their Asian counterparts correctly recognized the samples regardless of race representation. Therefore, scholars came to the conclusion that the Asian participants had more inter-experience, which indicates that this ability may be boosted by training. This discovery means that in case there is a need for enhancing face-recognition abilities, any person can do it on a basis of special practice. 

In further experiments, scholars used modified face models in their attempts to discover the patterns of face recognition. Thus, in the study by Michel, Caldara and Rossion, the face models used for recognition were split and substituted with identical halves. This experiment aimed at identifying the degree of holistic processing used when recognizing other- and own-race faces. The results of the study demonstrated that the speed of identification was deteriorated when the participants observed other-race faces. Moreover, there was an overall tendency for perceiving identical top parts of the faces as different. Cassidy explains this phenomenon by the fact that people tend to form a “gestalt” of a face. Thus, the “gestalt” is applied to other faces when there is a need for the face differentiation, which causes interference. The authors of the experiment interpreted the results as showing that the ability for holistic face recognition increases despite the fact that the enhanced face perception is based on familiarity. 


Furthermore, other studies attempted to interfere with the process of face recognition by means of emotions. In the experiment by Johnson and Fredrickson, the White participants were faced with samples of the faces of Caucasian and Afro American people in order to recognize and differentiate between them. During the first phase of the experiment, they were shown the samples depicting the emotions of fear, joy, and the neutral ones. As a result, the participants demonstrated that positive emotions enhanced face recognition ability among the peers. During the second phase of the experiment, static pictures were substituted with video samples. As a result, the ability of the participants for face recognition of other-race representatives drastically increased. Thus, positive emotions demonstrated by other-race representatives may increase the chances of their faster and adequate recognition. 

One more experiment addressing the issue of the other-race effect and factors deteriorating face identification involves the face inversion effect. Thus, scholars presumed that rotating faces to 180 degrees would restrain the process of face recognition and differentiation. As a result, poorer extraction of configural information underlay the other-race effect, but demonstrated a small difference in the proportion of misrecognized own- and other-race faces. Consequently, face configuration processing plays a significant role in the processes of differentiation and recognition of different faces. Moreover, the revealed characteristics indicate that people tend to use face gestalts and rely on peculiar aspects when attempting to recognize other-race faces. 

Describing the issue of the other-race effect, it is significant to denote that certain studies addressed it in relation to children. For instance, the experiment by Kelly, Liu, Lee, Quinn, Pascalis, Slater and Ge involved 3-, 6- and 9-month old Chinese infants. The scholars investigated their abilities in face recognition towards the representatives of other race. The aim of the experiment was the analysis of the participants’ abilities for identification between the Chinese, the Caucasian, and the African children’s faces. As a result, the 3-month-old children demonstrated the best results in face recognition whereas the 6-month-olds mostly recognized the Chinese faces, failing to identify African and having problems with the Caucasian ones. Likewise, the 9-month-old children were able to recognize Chinese faces only. Thus, this study served as the support for the theory of recognition based on experience that increases one’s ability for recognition of individual face differences regardless of a race. 


It is evident that the other-race effect is mostly an experience based phenomenon, which involves a set of detective patterns based on gestalts. Moreover, numerous studies highlight the importance of the role of the perceptual and memory components during the process of face identification and differentiation. This means that people recognize faces by means of referring to previously memorized features imprinted as gestalts. Furthermore, the experiments demonstrate that the participants mostly fail to differentiate between the faces of other-race counterparts due to several factors. One of them is social categorization, which restricts the psychics from searching for additional differences as soon as the counterpart is identified as one of the “other race.” However, this aspect plays a minor role, as was proven by the analyzed experiments. Thus, the current investigation demonstrated that people mostly rely on experiences and skills when attempting to recognize faces. It is therefore easier for them to recognize the representatives of their own race because they have a profound experience in it. That is why the peers who live in multiracial communities demonstrate higher proportions of successful attempts in other-race face recognition. At the same time, those who live in enclosed and unified racial communities struggle when differentiating between the faces of other-race representatives. A peculiar feature of this phenomenon is that it starts at an early infancy stage, as 3-month old infants can differentiate between the faces regardless of the race. However, their growth in the environment with the representatives of one race lead to the loss of this ability. That is why most people experience the other-race effect when attempting to identify and recognize the faces of other-race counterparts.


Summarizing the presented information, one comes to a conclusion that the other-race effect is a complex psychological feature which involves a set of peculiar triggers. Moreover, the analyzed experiments demonstrated that people tend to use gestalts and other patterns of face recognition in order to make this process easier. At the same time, the discussed aspects may be trained in order to raise the success of face recognition regarding the representatives of other races. Thus, the analyzed experiments demonstrate that people who were surrounded by the representatives of other races demonstrate better abilities in face recognition of other-race counterparts. Moreover, studies reveal that during the process of face identification, people use various spacial structures in their attempts to compare the faces of other-race representatives. Likewise, certain aspects, such as demonstration of positive emotions, increase the chances for correct recognition and differentiation of other-race representatives. Additionally, the experiment involving infants showed that already at the age of 9 months, children lose their initial ability for other-race face recognition. This aspect means that if a person is surrounded by the representatives of one’s own race only, he or she would have problems when recognizing the other-race counterparts. Moreover, in case a person has been surrounded by multiracial community, he or she would have fewer struggles when analyzing and differentiating between the faces of other-race representatives. 

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