By Emma Young
Elinor McKone admits that, as a junior postdoctoral fellow, she could recognize her senior professor of another race “by nothing but his coat”. So McKone was a perpetrator of the “Other Race Effect” (ORE) – the (well-documented) fact that we are generally worse at recognizing the faces of people of other races than our own. Now, at the Australian National University, McKone has conducted the first formal study of how this phenomenon affects everyday social interactions. Research into mostly Chinese students who recently moved to Australia to study shows that both victims and perpetrators make social interactions difficult. In fact, the students found this to be just as great a hurdle to successful socializing as the language barrier.
The 89 students, all from East and Southeast Asia, first completed a computer-based memory task in which their individual ability to recognize faces of their own race against those of other races was measured. They then answered questions about how difficult it was for them to get in touch with whites in Australia and how much cultural or language barriers contributed to these difficulties. They also reported the extent to which the alien racial effect was an obstacle to socialization, both in terms of students’ difficulty identifying white people and assigning their names, and in terms of their experience with white students or authority figures (such as Tutors) confuse them with other Asians. Finally, students reported how annoying or difficult they found the experience. (“Asian” and “white” are used here because these are the terms used by the researchers; they were chosen to be used commonly by the students.)
The results showed that the Other Racial Effect made a significant contribution to the difficulties the students reported when dealing with whites. On the objective face recognition test, those who were worse at recognizing faces of other races when compared to faces of other races reported greater difficulty in socializing. And the participants themselves reported that experiences of being victim or perpetrator of the alien racial effect contributed equally to difficulties with socialization – therefore the struggles in recognizing white people and being incorrectly recognized as another Asian person were both important. In fact, these experiences were perceived as as important as the language barrier and only moderately less important than cultural differences. “In summary, these results show that international students viewed ORE-related factors as highly relevant factors in understanding their real-world difficulties dealing with whites,” the team writes.
Of the 89% of participants who said they had a white authority figure in their lives, 81% said they had at least some experience of being mistaken for other Asians by this person. This caused suffering and difficulty in 14% of this group. About half, however, have “largely shaken off being an ORE victim,” writes the team. The reason for the strikingly different reactions is not clear. It could have to do with how often one person is mistaken for another, suggests the team.
Previous studies have looked at how the effect affects testimony in the courtroom, for example by making an eyewitness more susceptible to misidentifying someone of a different race than his own. But as the team writes, their new work shows that “it causes problems in the real world” common everyday situations that all people experience. ”(Your italics.) And there are several other possible implications. When people cannot recognize faces of other races, they may choose to communicate more with people of their own race to encourage segregation. Much more research is obviously needed to understand the day-to-day implications of this effect. Since effective strategies for combating them have so far proven to be elusive, there is an urgent need for research here too.
– Why the alien racial effect is important: Poor recognition of faces of other races affects everyday social interactions
Emma Young (@EmmaELJunge) works at BPS Biomedarticles