'You all look alike to me' is hard-wired in us

July 14, 2019

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'You all look alike to me' is hard-wired in us

You often hear it framed in a comic sense, though it’s a form of stereotyping, and even prejudice. “You all look alike to me.

To one race, the tired adage implies, people in other races are tough to differentiate from each other. Some call it the “other-race effect.”

It’s something more than a wince-worthy punchline. In fact, new research bears it out. We are hard-wired to process—or not process—facial differences based on race. And that process occurs in the earliest filters of our thought process—i.e. when we’re very young.

The overriding question posited in the paper is: When we observe members of another racial group, are their actual physical distinctions blurred in our mind’s eye?

What the researchers say: The study participants were 17 white people who studied white and black faces on a monitor while lying inside a functional MRI scanner, which identifies changes in brain activity. In addition, some experiments were conducted outside of the MRI.

The team looked at the white participants’ high-level visual cortex to see whether it was more tuned in to differences in white faces than black ones. The visual cortex is the first stop for processing impulses from the eyes; the high-level visual cortex specializing in processing faces.

Their findings affirmed previous studies, determining that participants showed a greater tendency to recognize differences in own-race faces, and less for other races. But the study went further, demonstrating how deep this tendency runs: as far as our earliest sensory processes.

“Our results suggest that biases for other-race faces emerge at some of the earliest stages of sensory perception,” The lead author wrote in the paper.

He noted that the fallout from noticing the differences in members of one own’s race but not others is profound. These early perceptions can cascade, affecting downstream beliefs and behaviors. The implications can range from embarrassing to life-changing—think of when the wrong suspect in a crime is selected from a lineup.

“We are much more likely to generalize negative experiences if we see individuals as similar or interchangeable parts of a broad social group,” the researchers said.

Previous studies have found that the “other-race effect” is found in populations other than whites.

“These effects are not uncontrollable,” he said. “These race biases in perception are malleable and subject to individual motivations and goals. In this sense, attitudes, motives and goals can be shaping visual perceptual processes.”

So, what? Many years ago, it was suggested the idea of race differentiation was based on competition for resources and it was for this reason that researchers assumed racial prejudice was a way of preparing us to be on our guard.

More recently, this theory has been discarded by most scientists. The idea now is that the obvious characteristics of “race” –skin color etc.—are just like any other substantial difference such as distinctive dress, beliefs or food preferences. The more we find we have in common with each other, the less important differences in race—or anything else—become.

The ability to share, to collaborate and to be compassionate with other people depends on the overall level of perceived commonality.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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