Recognition and response

Over time we become adept at distinguishing face types we see regularly and less good at deciphering faces of other ethnic groups

There is a foundation to the white European cliché that people from the Far East ‘all look the same’ – but Chinese people find it just as difficult to tell Caucasians apart.

This ‘perceptual narrowing’ starts early in life – at three months infants show no signs of discrimination, but by nine months they recognise faces only of their own ethnic group. So a face-recognition system may be built into the brain (hard-wired), but learning hones its function as we grow.

Father with newborn baby

Father with a newborn baby, approximately 1–2 months old.


Anthea Sieveking/Wellcome Images

In adults, unfamiliar ‘other group’ faces lead to stronger ‘fear conditioning’ responses in the brain. What’s more, this appears to be an automated (subconscious) response.

This may be an ancient defence mechanism – strangers are a potential source of danger. So is inter-ethnic mistrust an inevitable consequence of our brain’s survival instincts?

Behaviour is rarely cast in stone, and learning can influence these responses – experience of interracial dating, for example, lowered the fear-conditioning response. There are also plenty of examples from psychology that priming – what we have been exposed to in the past – exerts a big influence on our behaviour, even if we are not aware of it.

Understanding some of the factors that influence our behaviour can help us to overcome innate constraints or prejudices for socially desirable ends. And they can help us appreciate how, for example, racial stereotyping is so damaging.


About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘How We Look’ in June 2008 and reviewed and updated in November 2014.

Psychology, Neuroscience, Cell biology
How We Look
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development