Posted on July 5, 2011

Why Faces of Other Races Look Alike

Remy Melina, LiveScience, July 1, 2011

The brain works differently when memorizing the face of a person from one’s own race than when attempting to remember the face of someone of another race, new biological evidence suggests.

The well-documented “other-race effect” finds that people are less likely to remember a face from a racial group different from their own. Northwestern University researchers set out to determine what causes this rift in perception and memory by using electroencephalogram (EEG) recordings, which measure brain activity, while participants viewed photos of various faces.

The researchers found that brain activity increases in the very first 200 to 250 milliseconds when seeing both same-race and other-race faces. Previous research has associated this very early phase, known as the N200 brain potential, with the perceptual process of individuation. That process involves making out the unique facial features of each person, such as the shape of their eyes and nose. {snip}

However, the amplitude of that increased brain activity only predicts whether an other-race face, not a same-race face, is later remembered, the Northwestern University study showed.


The N200 waves were large for all same-race faces, regardless of whether or not they later were successfully remembered. In contrast, N200 waves were larger–suggesting greater brain activity in certain regions–for other-race faces that were remembered than for other-race faces that were forgotten. This finding suggests the individuation process of noticing distinguishing features of a face didn’t kick in for some other-race faces.


13 responses to “Why Faces of Other Races Look Alike”

  1. Jeddermann. says:

    Whitey is the most diverse of the races on the planet so the others being not so diverse “look alike” to us. Look MORE alike is more correct. You don’t see blond or red headed Orientals or Africans [Bantu] for instance. And colored eyes for example is the term the ancient Chinese applied to “westerners”. Because whitey is so diverse the others to “US” seem more ALIKE?

  2. Question Diversity says:

    English translation: They all look alike, not because they literally all look alike, but because we don’t spend enough time looking at them because we’re such bigots we only want to look at our own.

  3. sbuffalonative says:

    Real, objective science provides us with the truth.

    Another possibility is “social categorization,” or the tendency to group others into social categories by race, according to the researchers.

    Some years ago, I recall reading a piece by a white man who adopted a black boy. He and his wife decided they would rear him in a raceless environment and never talk about their differences.

    One day, the young boy said to his adopted father that they were different. The father asked him how they were different and the young black boy pointed to their different colored skin.

    I found it interested that the boy, because he had been reared in a raceless home, knew not to verbalize the difference but to only point to their different skin color. What the boy had learned is that the differences that he saw were not to be spoken of out loud but he DID see the difference.

    I don’t believe any integration at the youngest of ages will stop people from seeing racial differences.

    The truth is self-evident to everyone. Only liars and delusional people with personal agendas perpetuate race lies.

  4. Robert Binion says:

    I have not read Jung in two decades, but seem to remember “individuation” for him a wholesome process in which different parts of the conscious and unconscious become one, a positive step on the road to spiritual growth. Do scientists at Northwestern view discernment of facial features in a similar light? (Did they vary the cranial capacity of the heads that subjects were shown, or were mere visages displayed?) If the perception of kinship is a necessarily humane activity, where is the visionary to declare racial separation (in leftist jargon) a basic human right? (This is highfalutin’ and clumsy, I know.)

  5. White Guy In Japan says:

    I seem to remember reading about this a few years ago. I think police first picked up on it and then psychologists expanded it.

    By the way, you know Whites will often say all Asians look the same? To the Japanese, all Whites look the same. Touche!

    Seriously, my students, cafe owners and such constantly mix us up. I’m 6’1″ and 200 pounds and my old roommate was 5’9″ and 150 pounds. Business owners thought we looked the same.

  6. Tim Mc Hugh says:

    “different than when memorizing the face of someone from another race” Reminds me of the time I talked to a pharmicist moments after he had been robbed… Me: “Did you get a description? What`d he look like?” Him: “He was chrome plated and snub nosed…”

  7. John Engelman says:

    Eye witness identifications across racial boundaries of people one has never seen before are very unreliable. I have been mugged several times, and robbed at gunpoint once. The only thing I remembered about the criminals was that they were young black men.

  8. Tolstoy says:

    I’m sorry. I do not buy this, anymore than I believe that non-English speakers don’t *really* speak much faster than English speakers. (“No, you Anglos just THINK we speak faster, because you are so internationally insensitive & ignorant.”) English has a third fewer syllables overall, so non-English speakers must speak very quickly to convey similar content within a similar time frame. (It’s called “jibbering.”) Otherwise it would take all day for them to say, “I want to go to the supermarket.”

    Blacks do tend to look alike (even to other blacks)…because they do! They have a more homogeneous gene pool. Not very many if any unique characteristic to hang your hat on.

    The typical description of a black criminal would match 90% of blacks in America, if not the planet. How are the police supposed to arrest perps when they all look alike? Answer? They are not. That’s called “racial profiling” or “common sense.”

  9. Anonymous says:

    The elephant at the conceptual tea party seems to be the

    basic evolutionary fact that humans survived and surmounted by

    having a keen inherent “us/them” radar and compass.

  10. White Guy In Japan says:

    “The elephant at the conceptual tea party seems to be the

    basic evolutionary fact that humans survived and surmounted by

    having a keen inherent “us/them” radar and compass. ”

    This is something that my anthropology professors tippy-toed around for years. As an evolutionary adaptation, tribalism (or “racism” to others) served to protect us as we seek the company of people we know and trust and avoid contact with people we don’t. We don’t have to be at war with each other, but when we insist on sharing the same space and consume the same resources, you can’t possibly expect an peaceful co-existence. Unless brought about through the most tyrannical of measures. (Which seems to be the case in the US.)

  11. diversity = adversity says:

    yes we have an easier time recognizing the facial features of those in our racial group, this is ok and called “tribalism” when done by non-whites, and “racism” when done by Whites. pointing out the double standard is also “racist” if you are White, and evident of your sense of “fairness”. to non-whites, “fairness” means “what is good for my people”.

  12. Wayne says:

    Blacks do tend to look alike (even to other blacks)…because they do! They have a more homogeneous gene pool.

    That is absolute rubbish. Sub-saharan Africans are well known to be about the most genetically diverse group of people on the planet. There are big genetic differences between East and West Africans, Kenyans and Nigerians. This is even apparent from watching the Olympic games.

    Because whitey is so diverse the others to “US” seem more ALIKE?

    Surprisingly Asians seem almost to be oblivious to hair and eye colour when observing whites. Asians, as White Guy In Japan, can have difficulty distinguishing between whites.

    Whether this is genetic or not is another thing.

    I’m sure Asians brought up in the West would have little difficulty in distinguishing between different white people, and likewise a hypothetical white who was brought up as Asian. In fact it would be interesting to find out whether a fully Westernized Asian, brought up in the West, would find it any easier than a random white, to recognize different Asian faces.

  13. Anonymous says:

    Wayne wrote: “Sub-saharan Africans are well known to be about the most genetically diverse group of people on the planet.”

    Actually what is “well-known” is that East Africans look different from other sub-Saharan Africans because they are racially mixed with Arab blood–and have somewhat higher IQs. The non-mixed sub-Saharan Blacks are, in fact, quite homogeneous from a genetic point of view.