Cognitive Daily

ResearchBlogging.orgWhen adults are asked if they remember pictures of faces, they’re more accurate when the faces are the same race as they are. It makes some sense — people are likely to spend more time with and have more same-race friends, so they may become better attuned to the differences in individuals in their own racial group. This finding can be especially important in eyewitness testimony: If a crime victim identifies his assailant as someone of a different race, then the research suggests that this identification is more likely to be problematic than an identification of a same-race suspect.

But what about kids? Younger children have less experience, so maybe they don’t show the same bias in their ability to recognize different-race faces. While some studies have shown the same pattern in children as adults, an intriguing 1982 study led by J. Chance actually found that there was less of a bias in young children than in older children. Could it be that the bias is actually acquired over the course of childhood?

B. Corenblum and Christian Meissner felt the matter deserved more study, especially because they had identified some problems with the Chance team’s study. In that study, kids were shown photos clipped from college yearbooks. Later the kids saw those same pictures mixed in with previously unseen photos, and were asked which pictures they had seen before. It could be that the kids were recalling clothing items or artifacts in the pictures instead of the actual facial features.

Corenblum and Meissner showed a new set of photos to 169 Euro-Canadian children and adults. They used two different photos of each individual — during the recognition phase, all the people in the photos were wearing gray shirts, so that clothing could not be used to identify the picture. Half of the photos were of European-Americans and half were African Americans, a group that was almost completely absent from the Canadian city where the study was administered.

The researchers found no significant differences between age groups: Second- to fourth-graders, fifth and sixth graders, and seventh and eighth graders, and adults all showed the same bias in accuracy: they were less accurate in recalling the African-American faces.

In a second experiment, the researchers showed a new set of kids pictures of 7-10 year-olds. This time an additional race was included in the photos: Native Canadians (e.g. Inuit). Since Native Canadians account for 40 percent of the population in the study area, the European-Canadian kids definitely had contact with this group, but still the kids were significantly less accurate at recalling Native Canadian faces. They were even less accurate at recalling African American faces.

The authors argue that the amount of exposure to a group increases the accuracy of recognizing faces, regardless of the age of the person doing the recognizing or the age of the faces being recognized. They believe that the difference between their results and those of Chance’s team can be explained by the fact that Chance’s team used the identical photos both during the study period and during testing. Since real-world identification doesn’t generally work this way (we don’t see people wearing the identical clothes and posed in exactly the same position), Corenblum and Meissner’s results are probably more reliable.

Corenblum, B., Meissner, C. (2006). Recognition of faces of ingroup and outgroup children and adults. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 93(3), 187-206. DOI: 10.1016/j.jecp.2005.09.001


  1. #1 jodea
    February 25, 2008

    When adults are asked if they remember pictures of faces, they’re more accurate when the faces are the same race as they are.

    Isn’t this a somewhat sensationalistic way of describing the original studies? Surely it is more accurate to say that people are better at recognizing faces whose race they are more familiar with. At least, I’m guessing the data are all neutral between this conclusion and the “sameness of race” idea, and it is less far-fetched. The quote above suggests that, for example, a single caucasian growing up among asian people would nevertheless be better at recognizing other caucasians than asians. I don’t think there is any reason to suppose this. I know this is absolutely not where you’re going, but I do also think that to put the point in terms of sameness of race at the beginning is not such a hot idea.

  2. #2 eugene_X
    February 25, 2008

    I wonder if this is the root of the old stereotypical notion that “all Asians look alike.” It was a notion that I grew up with, in my small, all-white Midwestern home town. Even though there is more variation in hair and eye color amongst people of Western European descent, I have long suspected that there is something more to the inability of some people to recognize faces across race and culture– the variation in that ability is something that I have definitely seen.

    It reminds me of the semester I spent studying in Indonesia, and living with an Indonesian family. One day I came home and the mother of my host family said “your friend stopped by to see you, but I am sorry I forgot his name…”

    “What did he look like?” I asked.

    “Umm, I can’t really say,” she said. “You white people all look the same.”

    I thought this was howlingly funny at the time, and I still kind of do.

  3. #3 Richard Simons
    February 25, 2008

    Before I was in Africa I had met few black people. When I was first there I found it difficult to remember people. I did not think they looked similar but I think the skin colour dominated everything else in my memory, until one day I was sitting at an outdoor cafe watching people walk by and I suddenly realized I was seeing people differently. However, I always had some trouble there because there were regional similarities, to the extent that I once commented, correctly, that a person looked like she came from a particular small town.

    Years earlier, a friend of my fiancee (now my wife) was the first Chinese person I’d had any real contact with. My wife was surprised when I commented to her I could not see emotions on Maureen’s face. About a year later the three of us stayed with another friend of mine who confided to me ‘You know, I can’t see what Maureen’s feelings are’ to which I replied ‘Oh I can, they are really clear.’ I’ve often wondered if the different face shape, especially around the eyes, was modifying the cues I was looking for or if some of the cues themselves were different.

  4. #4 JYB
    February 25, 2008

    I seem to recall a study reporting that different ethnicities use different primary markers for facial recognition (nose size, space between eyes, etc).

    Just on a personal note, I grew up knowing very few white people (primarily teachers) and didn’t have a white peer until I was in third grade. I can distinctly remember having a hard time telling white people apart.

    On a -itwouldbefunnyifitwasn’tsosad- note, I have a memory of being in 7th grade and playing school basketball against a team of white kids. My team was entirely black and asian. We had the hardest time figuring out who we were guarding and had to keep peering around the back at their numbers. Later I heard their coach on the bench yelling at one of his kids for not playing defense and the kid complaining that we all looked alike. I still remember thinking “We don’t look alike, YOU look alike.”

  5. #5 Marc
    February 26, 2008

    Some believe there is an evolutionary reason for this, and I tend to agree. It was adaptive for our ancestors to be able recognize the faces of those who were in their social group. They had to be able to tell people apart in order to know who to trust, who to befriend, who to avoid, etc. On the other hand, with people outside their social group/tribe it would only be important to recognize them as “other”. Making individual distinctions among them was relatively unimportant, as their interaction would be limited. This recognizing other groups as foreign, and thus often dangerous, may also have been adaptive. Some suggest this laid the foundation for modern day racism and the fear of those who are different from ourselves.

  6. #6 jodea
    February 26, 2008

    The adaption story seems false to me. It is only very recently that humans have been mixing with different races. Up until just a few hundred years ago, almost nobody saw anybody of a different race. Neighbouring groups before then would all have been the same race.

    Is there any reason to think that this is not just a specific instance of a general trait? For example wine drinkers can identify wine by taste much more accurately than non-wine drinkers, for whom all red wine tastes pretty much alike.

  7. #7 Gwen
    February 26, 2008

    I wonder if 2nd graders aren’t already too old? Work in phonetic recognition by Janet Werker and others shows that infants under the age of approximately 2 years are equally good at recognizing and distinguishing sounds from many different languages, but by the time they are speaking their own language they seem to have narrowed in and have difficulty distinguishing between phonetic sounds that only appear in foreign (to them) languages. I wonder if something similar might be true for facial recognition – maybe infants zero in on the features that are most useful to distinguish between the faces that they are exposed to regularly within the first few years of life…?

  8. #8 sasha
    February 26, 2008

    this study reminded me of a regular blog feature called “Misidentified Black Person of the Week” at this blog:

  9. #9 Sadie Morrison
    February 26, 2008

    The terminology in this post bugs me. I’m sure you’re wholly familiar with this, but all people belong to the same race. Perhaps a better term to use in this case would be ethnicity.

  10. #10 Dave Munger
    February 26, 2008


    I’m not actually very familiar with the terminology in this field. I went with the terminology used by the study authors: “race,” not “ethnicity.” My anecdotal understanding of the difference is that “race” has to do with the outward, physical appearance of an individual, where “ethnicity” has to do with the cultural and behavioral background of an individual.

    But perhaps some of our readers can offer more insight on the proper usage of the two terms.

  11. #11 Mike
    February 26, 2008

    I think this could easily apply to recognizing animals as well. A certain type dog breed might look all the same to an outsider. However if you actually own a dog from that specific breed, you would probably be able to recognize it out of a group of similar dogs. So it seems like the brain can become better at recognizing distinct individuals even if they are of another species.

    It also could apply to other things as well. A person who dislikes clasical music, might think it sounds all the same. However, a person who is a connoisseur might be able to distinguish individuals songs that another person wouldn’t be able to do. Likewise a person who hates rap might think every song sounds exactly the same. A person who really enjoys listening to rap, might find each song to be different and unique.

  12. #12 bg
    February 27, 2008

    Ok I just want to briefly state that I always have problems with studies like this. I haven’t read it and maybe the authors did control for other cultural influences, but kids are exposed to a majority of white characters on TV which I think could heavily influence these results. Our real-world interpersonal interactions are not the only thing that influence our perceptions of race. K, nuff said.

  13. #13 hsing lee
    March 3, 2008

    It’s taken you science wizzes THIS long to have your Eureka moment about people of different races giving bad eyewitness testimony about people of a different color?


    Any non-white five year old living in Compton or East LA can already tell you this with certainty…


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