Other-race effect – a phenomenon in which people have difficulty telling apart individuals of a different race to their own

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New research led by The Australian National University (ANU) has shown exposure to people from other racial backgrounds during childhood could help us better recognize faces across different races as adults.

The study, led by Professor Elinor McKone, examined the “other-race effect,” a phenomenon in which people have difficulty telling apart individuals of a different race to their own.

It found social contact during childhood can reduce and even eliminate the other-race effect.

Co-author Dr. Amy Dawel said it is a really important finding.

“The other-race effect can have serious real-world consequences,” Dr. Dawel said.

“For example, inaccurate cross-race eyewitness testimony has contributed to wrongful criminal convictions, passport misidentifications and even magazines mistakenly illustrating stories with a picture of the wrong person.”

The study asked participants how much contact they had with people from other races during primary school, and then as adults.

Those who had more contact during primary school had less difficultly recognizing faces across different races as adults.

Interestingly, adolescent and adult contact had little impact.

According Dr. Dawel, this suggests there may be a critical window during which our human face recognition system is shaped.

“Our results suggest that exposing children to faces of different races during childhood will help reduce the other-race effect,” Dr. Dawel said.

“It is possible that people could still learn to recognize other-race faces better later on in life, but it would be like learning a second language as an adult.”

“It would take most of us a lot of practice and time, and we might never become ‘fluent.'”

The researchers believe there could be good reason for the parallels between facial recognition and language acquisition.

figure2
Races (continent of ancestry) and within-race ethnicities of face stimuli and observers. (a) Average face for three variants of the Cambridge Face Memory Test that display: Asian faces (CFMT-Chinese24); Caucasian faces of largely Northern-European appearance (CFMT-Australian25); and Caucasian faces of more Southern-European appearance (CFMT-original20). Note the multiple physical differences in both local features and aspects of global face structure; to facilitate comparison, white boxes are identical and images matched for distance between eyes. (b) Difference-score formulae used to calculate each participant’s other-race effect (ORE) or other-ethnicity effect (OEE) score.

“Our findings match up with the well-known critical period for language acquisition,” said co-author Associate Professor Evan Kidd, who holds a dual role with ANU and the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in The Netherlands.

“Both language and faces are important for communication—we focus on the face when speaking and listening, and both faces and voices help us identify individuals and members of our social group.”

The team is now working on developing new training methods to reduce the other-race effect in adulthood.

The research has been published in the journal Scientific Reports.


People recognize faces of their own race more accurately than faces of other races—a phenomenon known as the “Other-Race Effect” (ORE). Previous studies show that training with multiple variable images improves face recognition.

Building on multi-image training, we take a novel approach to improving own- and other-race face recognition by testing the role of learning context on accuracy.

Learning context was either contiguous, with multiple images of each identity seen in sequence, or distributed, with multiple images of an identity randomly interspersed among different identities.

In two experiments, East Asian and Caucasian participants learned own- and other-races faces either in a contiguous or distributed order.

In Experiment 1, people learned each identity from four highly variable face images.

In Experiment 2, identities were learned from one image, repeated four times.

In both experiments we found a robust other-race effect.

The effect of learning context, however, differed depending on the variability of the learned images.

The distributed presentation yielded better recognition when people learned from single repeated images (Exp. 1), but not when they learned from multiple variable images (Exp. 2).

Overall, performance was better with multiple-image training than repeated single image training. We conclude that multiple-image training and distributed learning can both improve recognition accuracy, but via distinct processes.

The former broadens perceptual tolerance for image variation from a face, when there are diverse images available to learn. The latter effectively strengthens the representation of differences among similar faces, when there is only a single learning image.


More information: Elinor McKone et al. A critical period for faces: Other-race face recognition is improved by childhood but not adult social contact, Scientific Reports (2019). DOI: 10.1038/s41598-019-49202-0

Journal information: Scientific Reports
Provided by Australian National University

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