Racist eyes have it

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When people say that members of other races all look the same to them, are they just being lazily racist or is there some truth behind the observation?

Commonly referred to as the “other-race” or “cross-race” effect, for centuries people have complained of not being to tell the members of racial groups separate from their own apart. In modern times, this notion is largely written off as a byproduct of a much more bigoted and racist time in human history. However, researchers from the University of California, Riverside say our brains are inherently inclined to either process, or not process, facial characteristics based on race.

According to the research team, this sub-conscious process occurs instantaneously as our eyes focus on a face. Throughout the course of the study, researchers aimed to answer one central question: When we observe an individual from another racial group, are their facial features blurred in our mind’s eye? 

A total of 17 Caucasians were brought in for the study and asked to look at both white and black faces on a monitor while inside an MRI scanner. The MRIs were used to observe any changes in brain activity while participants viewed the faces. There were also some facial viewing experiments that took place outside of the MRI scanner.

Using the MRI scanner, researchers focused on participants’ high-level visual cortexes, or the area of the brain responsible for processing visual information regarding faces. They were interested to see if this area exhibited different behavior depending on the race of the face being viewed by the participant.

Participants were much more likely to recognize facial differences among their own race than other races. This isn’t the first study to come to these conclusions, but this time around researchers went a step further and uncovered that this trait is ingrained in our earliest sensory processes.

“Our results suggest that biases for other-race faces emerge at some of the earliest stages of sensory perception,” the paper reads.

Why that might be the case is anyone’s guess – possibly there is an evolutionary advantage to being able to better read members of your own group, whereas members of other groups are automatically judged either a threat or an irrelevance. All wolves look the same to the sheep and vice versa. Our brains tends to work with those sorts of shorthand as a way of dealing with the problem of decision-making in the context of an information overload.

But is this perception phenomenon universal or is it just a white thing?

Prior research has found that the “other-race” effect occurs in other racial groups besides just Caucasians, but Hughes say he is not comfortable extending his study’s findings to African Americans, citing “majority vs. minority perceptions.”

“Members of minority groups wind up being exposed to more members of majority groups than majority members get exposed to minority members,” Hughes explains. “It could be that exposure to individuals of different groups may help the visual system develop expertise that reduces this effect.”

[emphasis added] Yay for fearless science!

There is of course a perfect solution to the dilemma – conduct similar studies, say, in Nigeria and China, to see how Asians view Africans, or Africans view Caucasians. We all struggle in this world.

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