Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Caucasians Struggle to Distinguish Asian Faces

By Stephen Luntz

Differences have been found in the way people of Asian origin process Caucasian faces and vice versa.

The saying “they all look alike” is often taken as a racist slur, but it appears to reflect a deficiency in the way Caucasians process unfamiliar faces. However, the cause of this deficiency is unclear.

It is known that people are better at recognising the faces of people of their own race than those of people from other ethnicities, particularly if they are raised in a relatively mono-racial environment. However, evidence has emerged that this effect applies less strongly to Asians than Caucasians.

Dr Kate Crookes of the ARC Centre of Excellence in Cognition and its Disorders at the University of Western Australia set out to test this using 38 white Australians and the same number of people of Chinese background from Hong Kong. The Australians were more likely to know Asians than the reverse, although Crookes says she did not check for exposure to other races via TV or film.

“People are much better at recognising part of a face (e.g. a nose) when it is presented in the context of a whole face than when it is presented on its own,” says Crookes. “To put it simply, a face is more than the sum of its parts.”

Participants were shown faces and then asked to choose between the same face with one feature (such as a mouth or eyes) altered in Photoshop and a different face. They were also shown the individual feature with the rest of the face excluded, and the participants challenged to pick the same feature from a choice of two.

Asian participants scored better at picking the whole faces, and did equally well with Asian and Caucasian faces. On the other hand Caucasians did better with whole faces of their own race than when picking a single feature, but showed no significant difference when shown whole Asian faces or just a feature.

Crookes says it would be interesting to compare both groups when shown pictures of a third race. “We’re interested in understanding why people have a better memory for their own race,” she says. “It’s an increasing problem if you’re doing business in another country and can’t identify people. It might help people do better if we knew why.”