When 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