We’re Worse At Recognising Faces From Races Other Than Our Own — And That Can Be A Major Barrier To Socialising

By Emma Young

Elinor McKone admits that as a junior postdoctoral student, she was unable to recognise her other-race senior professor “by anything other than his coat”. McKone was, then, a perpetrator of the “other-race effect” (ORE) — the (well-documented) fact that we are generally poorer at recognising the faces of people of races other than our own. Now at the Australian National University, McKone has led the first formal investigation into how this phenomenon affects everyday social interactions. The study of students of mostly Chinese heritage, who had recently moved to study in Australia, reveals that both being a victim and a perpetrator makes social interactions more difficult. In fact, the students found it to be as big of a hurdle to successful socialising as the language barrier.

The 89 students, all from east and south-east Asia, first completed a computer-based memory task, which measured their individual ability to recognise own-race versus other-race faces. Then they answered questions about how hard they had found it to socialise with White people in Australia and how much cultural or language barriers contributed to these difficulties.  They also indicated the extent to which the other-race effect was a barrier to socialising, both in terms of difficulties the students had had in recognising White people and matching their names to their faces, and in terms of their experience of White students or authority figures (such as tutors) confusing them with other Asian people. Finally, the students reported on how upsetting or difficult they found these experiences. (“Asian” and “White” are used here because these are the terms used by the researchers; they were chosen for being in general use by the students.)

The results showed that the other-race effect made a significant contribution to the students’ reported difficulties in socialising with White people. On the objective face recognition test, those who did worse at recognising other-race compared to own-race faces reported greater difficulties socialising. And participants themselves reported that experiences of being a either a victim or perpetrator of the other-race effect contributed equally to difficulties socialising — so struggles in recognising White people and being mis-recognised as another Asian person were both important. In fact, these experiences were perceived as being as important as the language barrier and only moderately less important than cultural differences. “In sum, these results show international students viewed ORE-related factors… as highly relevant factors to understanding their real-world difficulties socialising with White people,” the team writes.

Of the 89% of participants who reported a White authority figure in their lives, 81% said they had had at least some experience of being confused by this person with other Asians. This caused distress and difficulty for 14% of this group. However, around half “largely shrugged off being an ORE victim,” the team writes. The reason for the striking variation in reactions isn’t clear. It might be to do with how frequently a person is confused for someone else, the team suggests.

Previous studies have looked at how the effect impacts court-room testimony, for example, in making an eye-witness more liable to misidentify someone of a race other than their own. But as the team writes, their new work shows that “it causes real-world problems in common everyday situations experienced by all humans.” (Their italics.) And there are various further potential implications. If people cannot recognise other-race faces, they may choose to socialise more with people of their own race, encouraging segregation. Clearly, much more research is needed to understand the everyday impacts of this effect. And as effective strategies to combat it have so far proved elusive, there’s an urgent need for further study in this area, too.

Why the other-race effect matters: Poor recognition of other-race faces impacts everyday social interactions

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest