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.
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.
- Guardian: Why do people of other races all look alike?
- Why some faces won’t be remembered (2011)
- The other-race effect develops during infancy (2007)
- National Geographic: Race affects how we learn to fear others, study says
- Life is one big priming experiment...
- Psychology Today: Social priming – of course it only kind of works