The Other Race Effect- why we all look alike

Admit it, at one point in time, you’ve said to yourself that members of another race, especially Asians, ‘all look alike’. That you’re not racist but that they just all have the same hair, facial features, eye colour and body type. Well for one thing, it’s not that you’re ignorant or racist (or maybe you are, I don’t know), but it’s not that Asians have the same facial features either (cause we don’t). It’s just that you’re not very good at identifying them.

other race effect

It’s called the other race effect and is not just exclusive to non-Asians thinking all Asians look alike (believe me, my people think that David Beckham and Brad Pitt are strikingly similar). It’s a common effect seen in most races where an individual will often have difficulty recognising or identifying people of a different race. People have known about the other race effect for about one hundred years and only recently has their been quantifiable proof.

Some racially ambiguous scientists from Switzerland and the UK recently did a study involving a set of Western Caucasian and a set of East Asian participants. They showed each participant faces of people from their own race and the other race.

The researchers were monitoring what is known as ‘Repetition Suppression’, which is a kind of neural effect. Basically, when you’re exposed to a particular stimulus twice (such as looking at a face), your neural response to that stimulus will decrease the second time you’re exposed to it.

So if I’m shown a picture of Jackie Chan, a part of my brain will dance with excitement the first time. But if I’m shown the exact same picture of Jackie Chan again, my brain will kinda just clap instead. It signals that I have been able to register that the face was Jackie Chan and I was successful at decoding the stimulus presented to me.

The first time I see Jackie Chan:

holy shit it's Jackie Chan

Oh its just Jackie Chan again

As the researchers presented the participants with faces of the same race and faces of the other race, they noticed some interesting trends. Every time a participant was shown the same face from the same race twice, the neural activity decreased (ie they could tell it was the same person).

However, when a participant was shown the same face from the other race twice, the neural activity stayed the same. This indicated that the participant was not able to recognise the face presented to them, even though they had just seen it. The participants were not sensitive to other race faces and were poor at discriminating between them.

This research put an end to suggestions that some races just don’t have large variation in their facial features. Rather, the other race effect is a common phenomenon. Why we’re bad at sensing other races is still a bit of a mystery but is probably linked to the environment in which we grew up in.

As we grow, we learn to pick out subtle nuances in the faces that we see on a daily basis. If those faces happen to be all of the same race, then we’d be better at differentiating faces of those race than others. But perhaps we can train ourselves to be better observers. Perhaps one day, we can all watch a foreign film and differentiate the main characters by more than just their choice of clothing. Perhaps…

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