This is a guest post by Rivka Ihejirika, one of Greta’s top student writers for Spring 2007
Do you find it harder to recognize the face of someone from a race other than your own? Does it take you longer to recall the face of someone from an unfamiliar race? Some researchers believe that we are born with a predisposition to process faces of those from our own race better than faces from other races. Other researchers believe that the own-race face bias is not innate, but we develop a preference for the race of those in our immediate environment. People of all ages demonstrate the bias to prefer the face of someone from the same race. Yair Bar-Haim and his colleagues wanted to find how much of this own-race face bias was due to nature and how much was due to nurture.
Bar-Haim and colleagues studied the facial processing speed of infants around 14 weeks of age. The infants came from three different racial groups. The first group of infants were Caucasian Israelis who had a predominantly Caucasian upbringing. The next group of infants were African Ethiopian and were from a predominantly African environment. The last group of infants were African Israelis who were surrounded by a mixture of races in an immigration absorption center. The infants were seated on their mothers laps and shown eight face pairs of both Africans and Caucasians. The photo above shows an example of the African and Caucasian faces used in the experiment. The experimenters recorded location and duration of the infant’s focus on each picture pair. Here are the results:
The longer a child looks at a face indicates the child’s preference for that particular face. The Caucasian Israeli infants looked longer at the Caucasian faces than the African ones. The African Ethiopians looked at African faces longer than at Caucasian faces. If the African Israelis exhibited a preference for African faces, the role of nature in own-race face bias would have been shown. However, the African Israeli infants showed no preference for the Africans or the Caucasians. This data shows that nurture plays a significant role in race face perception.
This study shows that our environment greatly influences our perceptions. Even infants at 3 months of age demonstrate signs of racial preference, but this preference is limited to the race they are mainly surrounded by. Heightening cross racial contact mitigates the effects of the bias. Is the own-face race bias a problem? Perhaps: the bias signals a lack of diversity in surroundings. The influence of the own-race face phenomenon may carry over into our daily perception and can cause some racial prejudice beyond our direct control.
Bar-Haim, Y., Ziv, T., Lamy, D., Hodes, R.M. (2006). Nature and nurture in own-race face processing. Psychological Science, 17, 159-163.