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"You All Look Alike to Me"

Whites may be hard-wired to see little differences in other races.

University of California, Riverside, used with permission.
Source: University of California, Riverside, used with permission.

Before white people have given any thought to it at all, they've already made a conclusion that a black person is not only different from them but also much the same as other people the same color. This happens at the most basic sensory level, according to research published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States, or PNAS.

The study asked a basic question: When we observe members of another racial group, are their actual physical distinctions blurred in our mind’s eye?

Can we see them as individuals distinct from one another, or do they form one uniform, homogenous group?

Researchers studied 17 white participants who observed white and black faces on a monitor while lying inside an MRI scanner that identifies changes in brain activity. They observed activity in the participants’ high-level visual cortex to gauge if it was more tuned in to differences in white faces than black ones.

The visual cortex is part of the cerebral cortex and manages sensory impulses from the eyes. The high-level visual cortex specializes in processing faces.

Participants showed a greater tendency to recognize differences in faces of their own race and less for other races, confirming previous research. But this study went further, demonstrating that this tendency operates deep in our earliest sensory processes.

“Our results suggest that biases for other-race faces emerge at some of the earliest stages of sensory perception,” said lead author Brent Hughes, Ph.D., a psychologist at the University of California, Riverside.

Hughes notes that being able to distinguish differences in members of our own race, but not others, affects our beliefs and behaviors, the most serious possibly being wrongly accusing a person because he looked like another suspect—he was black.

“We are much more likely to generalize negative experiences if we see individuals as similar or interchangeable parts of a broad social group,” Hughes says.

But we can change all this, Hughes emphasizes. We may be hard-wired to respond, but we can learn nuances and more sophisticated behavior.

“These effects are not uncontrollable,” he said. “These race biases in perception are malleable and subject to individual motivations and goals." That is, we can learn distinctions among other races just as we learn them among our own.


"Neural adaptation to faces reveals racial outgroup homogeneity effects in early perception," Brent L. Hughes, Nicholas P. Camp, Jesse Gomez, Vaidehi S. Natu, Kalanit Grill-Spector, and Jennifer L. Eberhardt, PNAS first published July 1, 2019