April 25, 2006

It's hard to identify people from another race

Racial feature similarity in eye of beholder

by Iris Kuo

But such misidentifications aren't due to racism, said Roy Malpass, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at El Paso who has published widely on the cross-race effect. "People make about 50 percent more errors" when they're asked to remember other-race faces, he said.


Steve Casteel, a vice president at Vance International, a worldwide security firm based in Oakton, Va., who also worked with U.S. Iraq envoys Paul Bremer and John Negroponte, saw that problem in real life among U.S. screeners on the Syrian border.

They'd ask admission-seekers who turned out to be foreign fighters, "'Where are you from?'" Casteel recalled, "and they'd say 'Mosul,' and they'd let them in.

"An Iraqi would know they weren't from Iraq immediately" from their faces and from other cultural cues, Casteel said.


Malpass theorizes that the brain becomes less malleable in the area responsible for recognition and that people try to remember faces by focusing on the physical traits that vary in their own race -- hair, eye color and noses among Caucasians, for example.

When those traits don't vary much in another race, such as Asians, they're stymied. Or they fix on traits that differ in other races, such as eye folds among Asians, which don't help them tell Asians apart.

"We're looking for things that distinguish them for us," Malpass said, "but not the things that distinguish them from each other."

No comments: