WASHINGTON—Caucasians often look alike—at least to people who aren’t Caucasian. For that matter, blacks often look alike to whites and Hispanics to Asians.
It’s not that people of any one race or ethnicity, such as Hispanics, are harder to distinguish; researchers say that individual features vary equally among races and ethnicities. Rather, it’s that people have problems telling people from another group apart.
The so-called cross-race effect is something of a misnomer because the phenomenon includes ethnic, cultural and regional groups as well as racial ones.
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.
Malpass bases his estimate on experiments in which researchers asked subjects to study equal numbers of faces from their race and from a different race. After some time passed, the subjects looked at twice the number of faces they’d seen before—half of them seen in the earlier trial and half introduced for the first time—and identified those they thought they’d seen before. They all did much better with their own race.
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.
“Americans, you have to give them a six-month course and even then they wouldn’t get that right,” Casteel said.