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Those People All Look Alike: Tales of the Cross-Race Effect

During my senior in college, I attended a special event on campus. A classmate of mine, Myron D. Brown, now Dr. Brown, was sharing his skill on the piano with those in attendance. I noticed the president of the college and his wife ignore the rumblings of the room and focus in on Myron’s exceptional talent. Later in the evening, I was introduced to an older White couple, who were perhaps donors, trustees, or beloved alumni. Hands were extended for a now archaic greeting and smiles exchanged. The gentleman, in the way that a son hopes, looked me in the eye and said, “you did a wonderful job at the piano.” I don’t think anyone would say that Dr. Brown and I looked particularly alike; but we did share some features like: brown skin, brown eyes, and black hair. Years before this event, in high-school, I sat in a car with two other classmates. One was a White female. During our conversation, a familiar comment pranced from her lips: “don’t all black people look alike?” I suspect in the moment that I was not offended by her comment and likely faced her with the patience that a friend may expect. In fact, her tone was not assertive or delivered in a matter of fact way, but rather as a question on which she would lean “yes” if pressed to answer.


Moments like these are culturally mundane, a familiar passage in the book of Black experience. Growing up, we would attribute such statements to cultural ignorance or mild forms of racism. Yet, sometimes the wisdom of the crowd is contradicted by meticulous researchers hustling to understand the side effects of living. Why do individuals seem to confuse faces outside of their race more often than faces within their race? Sad to say, it is not that the Other lacks distinction, it is that you fail to notice it.

The phenomenon is called the cross-race effect (CRE). If you search google scholar for it, you will find other names like: other-race effect, other-race bias, and own-race bias. Oftentimes, the name used either tells you what type of psychologist is writing the paper or it reflects the type of journal in which the article is published. There is still a great deal of debate about what factors are driving this effect. However, to the chagrin of theorists of the commons I grew up with, racial attitudes are not related to the effect according to a meta-analysis published in 2001 by Dr. Christian Meissner and Dr. John C Brigham. Currently, we squabble over the degree of impact that three factors have on inter-racial face processing.

Factor one - The level of exposure you have had with other races plays a role in the effect. However, exposure is a troublesome thing to measure. Currently, we either use rough demographic estimates of where the participant lives or we give a self-report scale that tries to measure how much contact the participant has had with other races. In the end, what we really want to know is how much practice have you had processing and distinguishing other-race faces. Although measuring exposure has its complications, we do fairly well with self-report measures. In fact, such measures have shown that more exposure to other races leads to a smaller CRE (and in some studies an elimination of the CRE). Even so, the question of racial exposure is not only difficult methodologically, but also humanly. For some, it can be an eye-opening question when they realize that living in a diverse community where you get to pass by and stand next to a variety of faces likely does not cut it; you have to engage. For others, it can be a depressing question when they realize that many, if not all, of their interracial or intercultural friendships are superficial. These diverse relationships may comprise of individuals trapped in a context, like behind a store counter, where their job is based on being friendly to you. Perhaps, a more typical example are coworkers who share the same interest in having shelter and three-square meals, or classmates whose common drive for academic excellence places them in your vicinity. In both cases, these diverse friendships may be geographically bound. Our lives are far more culturally homogeneous than we realize; this point is not a criticism of us, just the natural progression of personhood. Thus, the effect persists.


Factor two – The moment you perceive a face, an automatic categorization process unfolds and takes note of what groupings the face may fit in. You categorize the face by whatever is most salient, which is typically the gender, approximate age, and race. This process allows you to quickly denote differences between you and the one you are viewing. The recognition that someone shares your race appears to afford superior processing than a face would normally receive. In other words, same-race faces are processed according to their distinction from other faces; we notice what makes those faces unique. Unfortunately, for cross-race faces, we may mostly notice what makes them distinct from us, their race, and fail to remember those features that make them distinct from others in their racial group. Just in case you are wondering, there is an other-gender effect (at least in women), and an other-age effect. In my own research, I have found that the CRE can be moderated by directing participants’ attention away from the racial category of the faces being studied. However, as research sometimes goes, it is not as clear cut as I have described here; diving into the specific complications requires its own post. Regardless, any finding that suggests other characteristics can outshine my earthy complexion is a reminder that various angles of who you are become visible in the right mental lighting. But, phenotypic features are visually arresting. Thus, the effect persists.


Factor three – In some cases, the detrimental effects of the CRE can be overridden by increased motivation to remember other-race faces. This means you are fully cognizant of a face’s other-race status, but contextual reasons increase your need to remember the face (see Young et al., 2012). The motivation factor has come under attack here and there. It is a factor that makes theoretical sense, but as others fail to find CRE mitigation from motivation interventions, it may need some tweaking (see Wan et al., 2015). Nevertheless, better memory for other-race faces may require social incentives. Powerful incentives that propel one to a different level of engagement than before. Until then, the effect persists.

Despite my knowledge of the subject matter and the diverse qualities of my life, I still see signs of the CRE within me. On the first day of my cognitive psychology course, I share a few effects that I think the students will find fascinating. One of those effects is the CRE. I always jokingly throw in the line: “for the first two weeks, I will only remember the Black students (if there are any) and everyone else will blend in.” Chuckles roll through the room, then I share the cognitive mechanisms behind the effect. In every course, at the beginning of the semester, I scan a classroom of new faces waiting for me to say something of importance. The first day and every day after is an attempt to pull students into my professional and cultural space. Yet, in spite each of their distinctiveness, some blend into a blur, left to be mis-identified for weeks. Indeed, the effect persists.


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