Dave Munger has just put of a great post over at Cognitive Daily, one of the sites I read pretty religiously: With a little training, we can recognize other races as well as our own. Dave discusses a recent article in Perception by a team led by Elinor McKone in which subjects were trained to recognize faces from ethnic groups other than their own and then subjected to very difficult recognition tasks. Turns out that people can get pretty good at this task, which many of us don’t do very well if we’re not ‘trained.’
I’m not going to go over the same turf that Munger does (not least of all because I won’t do it as well as he does), but I will copy his conclusion:
In other words, memory for different-race faces can be trained to work in the same way it does for same-race faces, even in a difficult peripheral-vision test, in a relatively short period of time. It doesn’t take years of immersion in a foreign culture, just an hour or so studying pictures (albeit hundreds and hundreds of them!).
This suggests that humans have a general pattern for recognizing faces that is adaptable even to unfamiliar faces. McKone et al. argue that we recognize same-race faces holistically, instead of feature by feature. Initially when we see a different-race face, we attempt to remember it using individual features, much the same we remember a animal or other object. But after some training, we learn to recognize even different-race faces holistically, which can be more accurate, but which doesn’t work as well when faces are upside-down.
Briefly, the research runs against the tendency to see the psychological or neural effects of social conditioning (like living in socially segregated environments) as the cause of social conditions. That is, there’s a tendency to want to argue that humans are innately racist, sexist, biased, hostile to those different, hierarchical, or whatever…. This kind of research tends to be essentialist and usually appeals to some sort of ‘genetic programming,’ but typically with no genetic evidence or even a plausible account of this social attitude might emerge from the genes, neural chemistry or any other biological mechanism.
Instead, this research shows that a very general principle of neural learning — that we become better at doing the tasks our perceptual system is frequently called upon to to and are less get at distinguishing unfamiliar stimuli — applies also in the realm of social perception. I find these sorts of explanations more plausible than the argument that social perception has all sorts of special, pre-programmed faculties although I wouldn’t rule this possibility out; I just would want evidence of a special mechanism to allow the existence of a special mechanism as an explanation. Or at least some sort of testable hypothesis to start looking for the evidence…
The research also supports the just-about-universal ethnographic experience of having your informants tell you ‘all of you [the ethnographer’s folks] look alike.’ For me, working in Salvador, Brazil, I frequently had folks tell me that ‘all white people look alike,’ or saying I looked like some celebrity where I found not even a passing resemblance. My favorite was someone who told me I looked like Tom Cruise; on a good day, I barely look like a less-hairy Robin Williams! On other occasions, my informants asked me if various light-skinned people were my relatives because they saw a resemblance, again where no white American would see a resemblance. In one case, a group asked if a Swiss woman visiting our capoeira group was my sister, when there was no similarity that a person accustomed to seeing European faces would perceive.
The point being simply that my informants were not accustomed to distinguishing white faces, this in spite of living in a mixed-race society and being bombarded with American movies and Brazilian television with disproportionate numbers of light-skinned actors. The experience of living in a segregated society, even with some contact with white people, left them very ill-equipped to distinguish among white faces, just like many Americans, living in what are often very segregated communities, are often not very good at distinguishing faces of people from different ethnic groups. (Most Euro-Australians would be no better, for example, with Aboriginal faces, I’d guess.)
I suspect that a lot of the pretty common human social traits — things like stereotyping and ethnocentricity — depend heavily on these sorts of general neural conditioning principles. That is, stereotyping, in this case, might be exacerbated by a perceptual inability to tell apart faces of people in a different ethnic group using the same holistic recognition abilities that we have for familiar-looking faces. There seems to be a tendency to too quickly impute ‘instinctual’ or ‘innate’ tendency to social effects that are likely more of a sum-of-forces, including learned influences, top-down ideological influences, perceptual processes, and perhaps even innate tendencies. For example, racism might be a general label for a host of processes, some of which are very subtle and perceptual (like the one discussed in this article) and some of which are more social-ideological, such as racist media or other influences.
Tying this dynamic social process with different facets all up into a tidy ball and saying ‘racism’s innate’ or ‘racism’s socially conditioned’ is equally unsatisfying. Both misstate the difficulty of change, the origin of ‘the problem,’ and the steps one might pursue to change a situation.
But this research also reminds me of the need to think of ‘culture’ as having significant perceptual dimensions, rather than just thinking of enculturation as entailing mostly internalized cognitive schemas, meaning structures, or other more ideational elements (and I’m still agnostic about how to model these things, too). That is, the way in which facial recognition perception is trainable is an example of how the perceptual system, not just interpretive, after-the-sensation mechanisms, might be affected by social training. In my own research, especially my work in sports, I’m confronted with data about how a variety of perceptual systems develop depending upon how they are trained, so this example might be more widespread than we initially think.
One anthropologist who has done a great job of detailing some examples of this kind of perceptual training is Cristina Grasseni (see, for example, Grasseni 2004 or Grasseni, ed. 2007). Her ethnographic work on different ways in which people look — and presumably what they see — would form an excellent foundation for generating all sorts of testable hypotheses for perceptual psychologists. In this realm, although there are some very interesting studies of the visual perception of car enthusiasts, chess masters, and a few other groups, I don’t think we’ve really begun to delve into the many ways that perceptual systems, not just sight, can be trained by specialized demands. Ironically, this research on face recognition might suggest that mechanisms similar to those we use to gain skills are also involved in biased perception of each other.
Grasseni, Cristina. 2004. Skilled vision. An apprenticeship in breeding aesthetics. Social Anthropology 12(1): 41-55. doi:10.1017/S0964028204000035 (abstract)
McKone, E., J. L. Brewer, S. MacPherson, G. Rhodes, and W. G. Hayward. 2007. Familiar other-race faces show normal holistic processing and are robust to perceptual stress. Perception 36(2): 224-248. DOI: 10.1068/p5499. (abstract)