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Other-race effect. Why do people of different races look the same to one another?

Other-race effect. Why do people of different races look the same to one another?

‘I can still remember how difficult it was for me to discern between different characters from Asian martial arts films’, writes Joanna Malinowska, winner of the Scientific Award given by the Philosophy in Practice journal.

Jagiellonian University’s Philosphy in Practice (Filozofia w praktyce) is both a website and a scientific magazine for the general reader, the aim of which is, according to its founders, ‘to show that philosophy is a fascinating, dynamic and attractive academic discipline, and philosophical discussions determine people’s opinions on the most controversial contemporary social disputes’, such as the development of biomedical sciences, health, military, environment protection, and many other topics that people debate over every day. Authors publishing in Philosophy in Practice are not afraid to ask controversial questions. Should we punish people for polygamy? What are the causes of terrorism? Should minors be able to make decisions about their own bodies? Should we fix the brains of criminals?

Together with the Polish Bioethics Society, Philosphy in Practice is the benefactor of the Scientific Award. In 2017, it was presented to Joanna K. Malinowska for her paper Cultural neuroscience and the category of race: the case of the other-race effect published in the journal Synthese. The article below is an abridged version of that paper, written by the author herself.

‘They all look the same’

I can still clearly remember how difficult it was for me to discern between different characters from Asian martial arts films. I thought all of the actors looked pretty much the same. This phenomenon, analysed by researchers for over fifty years, is frequently called the other-race effect (ORE). In scientific literature, it’s usually  described as a distinct psychological effect, pertinent only to representatives of differing ethnic groups. I posit that such a narrow interpretation of this phenomenon is incorrect. In the following paragraphs, I’ll provide arguments to support my claim; however, a more detailed analysis can be found in my paper. Let’s begin by establishing what exactly we know about the ORE.

The other-race effect is most often defined as a phenomenon that entails difficulties in discerning between different representatives of other ethnic groups (Kelly et al. 2009). It’s usually an impression that ‘they all look the same’. The effect can be observed in all ethnic groups (which means that most Europeans look the same for people raised in Asia or Africa). In recent years, thanks to functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and electroencephalography (EEG), we’ve been able to determine that the ORE is characterised by a decrease in activity of the part of the brain responsible for facial recognition (Ito and Bartholow 2009). Since those parts develop based on our experiences, it’s currently believed that the effect occurs when a person is rarely in the company of people from ethnic groups other than their own. Research studies conducted on new-borns, infants and young children suggest that the other-race effect becomes more prominent with age – it first occurs at about six months of age and intensifies as we grow up (Kelly et al 2009). It happens because of our brains’ plasticity: we learn to recognise the stimuli that are the most prevalent in our environment and we ignore or simplify the rest. Regular encounters (Hancock and Rhodes 2008) with representatives of other ethnic groups (multicultural neighbourhood or school, adoptive parents etc.) reduce the effect or, if a person has little to no contact with representatives of their own race, even reverse it.

Illustration depicting the ethnic groups of Asia: G. Mützel, The racial diversity of Asia peoples, 1904, Public domain

It’s worth to mention that social factors, such as motivation (Devine, Plant et al. 2002) and emotional reactions in a specific social context greatly influence the ORE. It was also determined that drawing attention to the emotional states of people of different ethnic background or assigning them to the same team as the interviewed person (Zuo and Han 2013) can significantly decrease the other-race effect.

Is our brain equipped with an other-race detector?

Many articles point to the evolutionary roots of the other-race effect and its importance to adaptation. For instance, instantaneous and automatic categorisation of other ethnic groups as alien could have helped people to properly react to threats (Wheeler and Fiske 2005). Some scientific papers even talk about ‘neural correlates of race’ (Ito and Bartholow 2009), suggesting that people have an other-race detector in their brains which automatically makes them less trusting and more prejudiced towards other races. This could potentially lead us to the conclusion that being less friendly to other ethnic groups is natural or even beneficial. Such interpretations are unsettling, since they could be used to legitimise racist or xenophobic behaviour. Are there indeed parts of our brains that are devoted solely to automatic recognition of other ethnic groups?

Evolutionary psychologists R. Kurzban, J. Tooby and L. Cosmides claim this is not true. They argue that our ancestors had very limited contact with other ethnic groups, so it’s impossible that they’ve had evolved special ethnic recognition mechanisms. Although we’re very good at quickly assessing if a person belongs to the same ethnic group as we do, accent (Kinzler and Spelke 2011) or the colour of someone’s collar (Kurzban, Tooby and Cosmides 2001) perform the same function just as well.

It’s important to note that social psychologists have investigated mechanisms similar to the ORE, but focused on different social groups with the same ethnic background. The best-known example of this is the outgroup homogeneity effect (Aronson, Wilson and Akert 1997), which is based on homogenous, stereotypical perception of physical and mental characteristics of the outgroup. The foreignness of a person is determined by a variety of factors: sex, hair colour, profession, subculture etc. E. Shriver’s research (2008) shows that the same effect is present in inter-class relations (e.g. middle-class people have difficulties with differentiating between people who look impoverished).

This effect also applies to auditory phenomena – people from different countries frequently find it hard to discern between two similarly sounding words in foreign languages, and people who are newly introduced to a certain kind of music may struggle to point out the individual characteristics that differentiate one piece from another (Palmer, Fais, Golinkoff and Werker 2012). In fact, this holds true for every aspect of our lives we’re not very familiar with (personally, I can’t recognise most cars and rely mostly on colour to differentiate between them). The only difference between the other-race effect and the abovementioned examples is the criteria which we apply.

All of this suggests that the perception of the other-race effect as a distinct phenomenon is unfounded. Problems with recognising other ethnic groups are just an example a phenomenon I call the unfamiliarity homogeneity effect. It occurs every time when we perceive something alien to us as homogenous. It is caused by universal learning mechanisms and specialisation of human cognitive structures, and is modulated by other factors, such as social context and motivation. I’m certain that looking at this phenomenon in a broader perspective, outside the boundaries of ethnic background, will help to explain and understand it.

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