Bias number 34 is known as the cross race effect. This bias explains the tendency for people to recognise faces of others who share their racial heritage.
While studies show that the cross race effect exists, scientists have not been able to identify precisely why this bias occurs with regularity. Several theories, including social cognition and perceptual expertise hypothesis, are suggested as possible reasons for the presence of this bias.
The one thing that all studies demonstrate is that the cross race effect occurs in every racial group studied.
Let’s look firstly at social cognition, one of the theories put forward as a possible explanation for the prevalence of the bias. Studies have shown that people tend to think more categorically about people who lie outside their social group and individually about people who lie inside their social group. This is true whether we’re discussing race, gender, ethnicity, religious affiliation, national identity and so on.
This theory is problematic because the results of the studies are inconclusive. In any research project, the bias of the researcher and his or her assumptions that direct the research approach need to be considered. In this case, social cognition shows up as a possible explanation in some findings but not others.
The second theory, perceptual expertise hypothesis, attributes this bias to a person’s skills in analysing visual data. It puts forward the idea that the more people are exposed to faces from different racial groups, the more competent they are at identifying people. This theory’s shortcomings reveal themselves when training is applied to help improve recognition. Training delivers mixed results in its effectiveness. Other biases and factors such as motivation and beliefs get in the way of the effectiveness of the training.
Why would you want to know about the cross race effect? How might it affect you?
If you find yourself identifying someone in a police line-up and your assailant is a member of a different racial group, you could be confronted with confusion in identifying the perpetrator. Make sure you study the criminal’s face in detail before you make your choice!
Other areas where researchers believe this bias to appear include the negotiating table. People may have a tendency to deem members of their own race more trustworthy than members of other races. In a world where diversity and inclusion is demanded, this presents a significant problem.
Do you make it a habit to mistrust people from other ethnic groups? Have you ever examined why you favour people of your own race over others?
One of the things that strikes me about this debate is the link between familiarity and safety. When you spend a lot of time with someone, you can take the time to look deeply into their face. You can examine their features and notice the nuances in their countenance.
If you grow up surrounded by communities of people who share your racial ethnicity, you will have developed a particular expertise in detecting differences. Your survival brain needs to develop this level of distinction in facial features to recognise family members from strangers.
It is a matter of survival, and in this context, it makes perfect sense.
When I watch nature programmes, I’ve often wondered how animals in the wild recognise their young when they look the same to me. I am amazed by the biologists who can identify certain members of a leopard family, for example, just by examining their spots. I can’t see it, but they surely can.
Enter into a playgroup full of parents and children. Watch a mother or father respond to their child’s cries from across the room. To an untrained ear, children’s cries may sound the same. For a parent, there is no sound like the one of their upset little person.
It is a matter of observation, strength of connection and a training of the eye and ear to recognise subtle differences in the grouping we call our own. It's quite possible that both theories are valid. Put them together and hey presto! A new theory emerges.
Is it any wonder that humans and animals alike will have developed this skill? Is there an issue with the presence of this bias?
Clearly, in a situation in which justice is being sought, you want to ensure you’ve got the right person. You want them off the streets so they can’t harm others and you want to feel a sense of closure on the travesty you’ve experienced.
In a business setting, is it wrong to follow your natural inclinations towards people who look like you? No, it isn’t wrong. However, it is something to observe in yourself. It is especially important when you bring trust into the equation.
You see, familiarity may breed trust, but it’s a false sense of trust. Perhaps you naïvely believe you know how this person will and will not behave, just because he shares the same skin colour as you. You can get yourself into a lot of bother by relying on this bias, and I’m not just talking about receiving a reprimand from the D&I police!
Trust is something that’s earned. Trust that is awarded without the due diligence required to determine a person’s trustworthiness verges into gullibility territory. And trust, when it is abused, must be earned again. Otherwise, you’re leaving yourself open to abuse.
What’s the antidote to this bias? Let go of the categorical assumptions you make about people, whatever they are. Make a commitment to take each individual on his or her merit. Exercise curiosity in the relationship before drawing any conclusions about trustworthiness. Spend time observing people. You will develop the acuity of perception required to make accurate distinctions between people, whatever their race.
Most importantly, know that beyond the skin colour or the native language lies a human being who is more like you that you might have observed to date. Allow people to express their personal version of brilliance. Sprinkle stardust wherever you go. That’s what we’re all made of, whatever your racial identification.
Be the star you are. Celebrate variety. Shine, and the world shines with you.