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Sisterhood in the face of it all!

female faces

female faces

What is your thought process when you see someone’s face for the first time? This is a tough question, and quite honestly I could not think of anything specific myself. Upon perceiving a face, it only takes us a few seconds to cognitively process it and gather all the necessary information about it. For something so seemingly easy and quick, one would not expect any difference between how different people perceive and process faces, right? Wrong. What if I told you that women processed males and female faces differently? If you are a woman like myself, you are probably puzzled, as you probably never had a difficult time recalling and identifying faces of your peers regardless of their gender. Evidence suggests that women are better at remembering female faces than they are at remembering male faces. In the paper titled “Women Own-gender Bias in Face Recognition Memory: the role of attention at encoding,” researchers investigated the role attention played in women’s ability to better remember faces of fellow females than faces of males.

male faces

male faces

What do faces, written language, and your daily salad have in common? They are all patterns, meaning that they are complex sets of observable changes in our environment that are detected by our senses and allow us to make sense of the world around us. I am pretty sure that you don’t have to remind yourself what your friends look like before you meet up with them for your night out. The reason why it is not necessary is because, once you have perceived and processed a series of information (can be visual, tactile, or auditory), it is stored in memory and we are usually able to remember things we have interacted with. Faces are special because research has shown that there are regions of the brain dedicated solely to recognizing, identifying, and categorize faces, while other patterns do not seem to have regions dedicated to them.

This matters because researchers have observed a phenomenon known as the own-gender bias in women. Remember that time you genuinely confused someone from another race with someone else of that same race or when your parents swore that your two friends of a different race looked exactly the same? Yeah, we have all been there and this is known as own-race bias. In cognitive psychology, own-race bias is defined not being able to differentiate between faces of people of a different race. The own-gender bias observed in women’s ability to recognize faces of their own gender better is modeled after biases like the own-race bias. However, while the own-race show reciprocity between the different groups, the own-gender bias is observed only in women, as men do not show an own-gender bias.

One theory to explain this phenomenon is that women have greater perceptual expertise for female faces. Evidence shows that infants process female faces better than they process male faces. Babies are able to differentiate between female faces long before they acquire that skill for male faces. This can be explained by the fact that babies interact a lot with their caregivers who are mostly women. Women had to process female faces frequently from an early age and that accounts for the expertise demonstrated when recognizing and remembering the female face. In their early days, men interact mostly with women but as they grow they start interacting with more men. The result is that they did not have enough time with either gender to develop a bias like the women’s own-gender bias.

When discussing how we process information from our environment, attention is usually considered a relevant factor. Attention defines the amount of cognitive resources dedicated to any task at hand we are attending to. On one hand, when you allot all your attention to one task referred to as full attention condition, you are expected to perform better on the task. On the other hand, when your attention is divided between multiple tasks at once, you are expected to not perform as well as you could and that is the divided attention condition. Therefore, researchers hypothesized that maybe women were better at remembering and recalling female faces because they devoted more attention to processing them when they first perceived these faces.

In order to test this theory, male and female research participants were presented neutral faces, while simultaneously performing another equally important task demanding their attention. Three experiments were conducted with different participants. In the first experiment, 70 women and 64 men were presented neutral faces at a full attention condition and presented face while performing a digit-monitoring task for the divided attention condition. The digit-monitoring task required them to report aloud when they heard a target number presented in a stream of 81 numbers. In a second experiment, 47 men and women participated in the test. They were also presented neutral faces in a full attention condition and also presented faces while also attending to a digit-monitoring task. The main difference form experiment 1 was that participants were asked to write down the target digits when they were heard from the stream of numbers being presented over loud speakers. In the third experiment, the experimenters wanted to account for floor effects, meaning that they wanted to ensure that the concurrent task participants carried out in experiments 1 and 2 were not too difficult as to cause everyone to score on the lower end of scale. 80 men and women research participants were presented faces, asked to monitor 2 specific target digits, and make a dash when they heard the targets.

Across all three experiments, they found that women remembered more female faces than male faces overall, while males did not seems to remember face form their gender more than face from the opposite gender. Women’s tendency to remember more female faces was not affected by the amount of attention they had to dedicate to the distractor in the divided attention conditions. These results show that the women’s own gender bias is not a result of more arduous encoding of female face. It appears to be the result of a better encoding of female faces than male faces by women, even when processing conditions are not ideal. Furthermore, men did not show significant own-gender bias, regardless of encoding conditions.

In conclusion, the own-gender bias observed in women is not a product of more effortful processing as evidenced in this study. It is believed that women are just experts at recognizing the female face. Although undivided attention is crucial when processing new information, experts can bypass this requirement as they have unlimited resources through past experiences, memory traces, and rehearsals that allow them to make the most of limited information. The fact that men do not show own-gender bias is interesting in that it give us some insight into selectiveness of cognitive processing. So, next time the you or males in your life have a hard time differentiating between your girlfriends, remember: it is not easy being a guy out here.

  • N. B: Interested in learning more about attention, gender and face recognition, and pattern recognition? Please check out these posts : attentionface recognitionFacial Processing
  • You can also access the paper discussed in this post Here


Loven, J., Herlitz, A., Rehnman, J. (2011). Women’s own-gender bias in face recognition memory: the role of attention at encoding. Experimental Psychology, 58, 333-340.

  1. December 7th, 2015 at 20:47 | #1

    The topic of this blog post is super interesting!! And I think the title is cute and clever. This post immediately made me think about the other two types of biases (mentioned in this post) that we’ve discussed in class — own-race and own-age biases. I’m trying to figure out how the contact hypothesis could fit into own-gender bias, as it applies to the other two phenomena. Conceptually, the contact hypothesis seems to draw parallels between all three biases. So for the own-gender bias, I’m thinking that the hypothesis plays a role in that babies have more contact with their mothers than with their fathers, causing the babies to favor the faces of females. This makes me wonder why males don’t also have a better ability to distinguish between female faces than with male faces… Additionally, this phenomenon seems vulnerable — as in easily susceptible to change within the coming years — especially in today’s society. I’m saying this because the explanation of this bias assumes that the woman is the dominant caregiver of the baby. I wonder how the bias will change as we have ever-increasing same-sex marriages, or as children are being raised by their single fathers, etc.
    On a different note, I’m wondering if there is an additive effect of biases? So for instance, I’m curious whether a 45-year old Indian female is the fastest at recognizing and differentiating between other middle-aged Indian females, and gets slower at recognizing faces as the physical characteristics of other individuals differ more and more from her own characteristics. In other words, I’m wondering if the own-race, own-age, and own-gender bias work together (more matches = better recognition).
    This also makes me wonder whether the biases land on a continuum; does one bias carry more weight than another? Will a 20-year old black female be the best at recognizing other black individuals? Or would she be the fastest at recognizing other 20-year olds? Or other females?
    Again, this post is great and is really making me think!

  2. December 8th, 2015 at 10:06 | #2

    This research is very intriguing and addresses many of the topics we have discussed in cognitive psychology. Due to many biases that have been observed in face recognition before such as the own-age and own-race bias, it is not surprising that an own-gender bias has been discovered as well. What makes this finding so compelling is that this bias is only observed in women. Although you mention that this might be because women are the primary caregivers for children, this would imply that men should also have a bias towards recognizing female faces (in this case it would be an opposite-gender bias). However, as reported in the article, this was not the case.
    An alternative explanation to the own-gender bias may be that women are in contact with other women more often than with other men. This supports the theory of perceptual expertise, which states that things that we are experts in (i.e., are more frequently in contact with) are easier for us to recognize. Additionally if men did not show unequal contact with either gender, they should not show the gender bias, which would agree with the results from this study. An additional possibility to explain these results comes from the work done by Harrison & Hole (2009) concerning the own-age bias. Similar to their findings, it may be that women are more motivated to attend to other female faces than to male faces. Furthermore, males may not have this same motivation.
    Evolutionarily this finding appears counterintuitive. Since one of the main drivers for any animal (which humans are) is to find a mate, I would have thought that humans would display an opposite-gender bias.

  3. December 10th, 2015 at 09:55 | #3

    This post really struck me and the researchers found intriguing data! From personal experience, I have a very hard time differentiating between men, but no problem with women, so it’s nice to see this is likely to be an issue for many women! The researchers’ explanation of more early exposure to women is reasonable, but I wonder if it is the continued exposure women have with other women. Some research suggests women are more dependent on each other and desire closer relations to other women, thus explaining why many women have a large number of female friends. Within this context, I think of the study we read in class conducted by Virginia Harrison and Graham Hole (2009), which found teachers recognize faces of younger children better, possibly because of the motivation of wanting to perform their job well. I wonder if a desire to befriend other women and create a social dependence can yield a similar form of motivation. Thus, women may have an easier time recognizing females’ faces because of their motivation to develop friendships with these women. This explanation could also interpret why men do not illustrate an own-gender bias, as men likely lack this motivation of befriending and fostering a social dependence on other men.

    I’d be curious if more desirable women, or those women others would want to befriend, would affect recognition. I am not sure how this manipulation would work, but perhaps attractiveness could play a role, as attractive individuals fall under the halo effect and are seen to have better, desirable characteristics, such as intelligence and charisma. Regardless, this described study was intriguing and I hope further research is conducted within this field!

  4. December 10th, 2015 at 16:38 | #4

    @Anna Herling
    I totally agree with you on the evolution and finding a mate approach to explaining this observation. I was expecting something along the line of the opposite-gender bias, just because conversation surrounding who we pay attention to, and who we are attracted to tend to revolve around finding a suitable mate. So, I too found it interesting that women would show own-gender bias. Thank you for reading.

  5. December 10th, 2015 at 16:41 | #5

    I think this post is interesting because like with the own-age/own-race bias that we talked about in class, it makes sense to me. I never really thought about it, but it is completely applicable to myself, and I’m sure to others. When you think about it, your mother is the first person you see and bond to when you enter the world. For a lot of people (but not all) the bond with your mother is like no other. This study showed that women are better at recognizing other women’s faces than men’s, showing an own-gender bias. This own-gender bias was not applicable to men, as they showed no better capability at recognizing other male faces. This makes me wonder if in a future study, are men better at recognizing the faces of females than that of other men? As was mentioned in your post, infants show the ability to differentiate between female faces far before male faces. Infants refers to both male and females, so again, I wonder if males also show a bias for recognizing female faces? I think doing another study to find this out would be really interesting.

    I also find it hard to accept that the reason women show this bias is simply due to the fact that they are experts. I myself can think of numerous reasons why I probably am better able to recognize the face of a female than the face of a male. I find this topic really interesting, and the fact that there have been numerous studies done on own-race and own-age bias makes me think that it would be worth doing further studies on this.

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