Cross-race effect’ is a global phenomenon

By Iris Kuo KRT

WASHINGTON – In a recent episode of “The Sopranos,” Tony Soprano dreamed that he’d been slapped by a Buddhist monk who mistook him for another white man who’d swindled him.

“All Caucasians look alike,” explained the unapologetic monk.

They often do, it turns out, 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 are harder to distinguish; researchers say that individual features vary equally among races. Rather, it’s that people have problems telling people from another group apart.

This so-called “cross-race effect” – something of a misnomer because the phenomenon includes ethnic, cultural and regional groups as well as racial ones – can cause trouble in an increasingly globalized world. For example:

” U.S. forces in Iraq sometimes have mistakenly admitted foreign insurgents because they couldn’t tell Saudis or Egyptians from Iraqis, according to Steve Casteel, a U.S. security consultant who until recently advised Iraq’s interior ministry, which handles domestic security. Iraqi police who later picked up foreign fighters would discover that the foreign insurgents had convinced U.S. screeners that they were Iraqis.

” U.S. drug agents sometimes can’t tell Colombian leaders of smuggling groups from the Peruvian and Bolivian peasants who work for them, said Casteel, a vice president at Vance International, a worldwide security firm based in Oakton, Va. An agent’s ignorance can be dangerous, he continued, because Colombian smugglers are more likely to be armed and violent.

” The Innocence Project, a New York nonprofit legal clinic that tracks life imprisonment convictions that are overturned by DNA evidence, found that white eyewitnesses misidentified innocent blacks 44 percent of the time. That’s nearly twice as often as they misidentified innocent whites.

Misidentifications aren’t due to racism, however, said Roy Malpass, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at El Paso who’s published widely on the cross-race effect.

“People make about 50 percent more errors,” he said, whenever they’re asked to remember other-race faces.

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 double 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.

Practice and motivation – such as courting foreign business or someone of another race – can overcome the cross-race effect to a degree.

“But you are much less rapid and accurate,” said Scania de Schonen, a neuroscientist at the University Rene Descartes in Paris who’s studied the cross-race effect in babies, adoptees and immigrants.

Humans develop their recognition skills in infancy, honing them on the faces they see most often, Schonen said.