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It was him! He committed the crime! So I thought….

Imagine that you have witnessed a crime where a burglar broke into your neighbor’s home and committed assault on the people present in the home. As the burglar left your neighbor’s house, you catch a quick glimpse of the burglar’s face. You are brought in the following week to choose from a list of suspects who potentially committed the crime. You notice that the suspects are all the same race as the burglar from last week, and to you, these suspects all look the same. As you are examining all the suspects in the room, you believe that suspect #3 committed the crime; Suspect #3 is then taken into custody.

No one is safe from the cross race effect.

You leave the police station thinking that the person you identified was the criminal. Justice has been served to the burglar, and he will pay for his crimes. Without your help, the law enforcement would have never caught the criminal. Well, Surprise! The actual criminal was actually absent from the police station and was never taken in as a suspect. The person responsible for the crime is still out there somewhere roaming the streets as an innocent person How could this be? (If you want to try to see if you can beat the effect, watch this video.)
This phenomenon is known as the cross-race effect, which has been notoriousfor convicting innocent people through both false memories of the description of the person and the failure to recognize other races’ faces. The cross-race effect refers to the instance where a person is more likely to remember faces that are closely associated with their race, while remembering faces from other races as indistinguishable. How does the cross-race effect work exactly? Well, we first need to understand how face recognition works. Face recognition works by identifying faces analytically and holistically. Analyzing faces analytically means that the features of a face (eyes, nose, mouth) are examined first in order to determine if the object in front of you is a face. The other analysis is done holistically, which means that the process recognizes faces as a whole in order to distinguish different faces from each other. Both these processes work together in order to identify individuals. Our judgements on identifying faces should be cautiously examined because our prior knowledge of what a face in a different race would look like tends to reconstruct what was actually seen by an individual. Because our exposure to our own race is the most common, we are better at holistically identifying individuals in our own race because prior knowledge of distinguishing between your own race sometimes is vital (i.e. being able to tell your siblings apart from each other assuming they are the same race).
To understand how the cross race effect works, Payne (2001) conducted a study to understand how and why police officers respond to situations resulting in great consequences due to the victim’s race. In his study, Payne had two faces, one white face and one black face, paired with either a tool or a gun and asked participants to identify the tool or the gun regardless of the face presented. The participants were first primed by being told to do nothing with the face pictures initially (Payne, 2001). Based off the results of the study, we can conclude that our prior knowledge of other races and the stereotypes surrounding other races influences our initial response to how we perceive events (process known as top-down processing: our prior knowledge influencing the events we perceive) Top-down processing allows an individual to process information quickly, however, that often comes at the price of making errors.
In addition to the limitations on identifying different races because of our prior knowledge on stereotypes of other races and mental representation, other researchers wanted to explore whether prejudices could be a result of this reoccurring phenomenon. Ferguson, Rhodes, and Lee (2001) wanted to examine whether prejudices have any significant role in the cross-race effect. In order to measure prejudice, the experimenters gave five phases to the participants showing them 12 photos of Asian faces and 12 photos of Caucasian faces. The results show that the Caucasian participants remembered more Caucasian faces than Asian faces and Asian participants remembered more Asian faces than Caucasian faces. The results failed to show, however, that prejudice scores impacted the number of faces remembered by the participants (Ferguson, Rhodes, and Lee, 2001). This study provided information that the cross-race effect is independent from prejudices, although the cross-race effect presents a larger effect when the individual is perceived to be more prejudice. In addition to prejudice, knowing your own race’s faces better is an explanation as to why prejudice in this study was not very significant.
After learning about how the cross-race effect functions, we can begin to understand the fallibility of eyewitness testimonies regarding the recall of a suspect who is of another race and why these testimonies tend to be false. In a study conducted by Ho and Pezdek (2015), the categorization-individuation model (CIM) was proposed in order to handle the differences in recognition accuracy in both same-race effect and cross-race effect (Another blogpost goes into futher detail here). The results of the study further add to previous studies of cross-race effect noting that identifying faces from other races are encoded based off of feature adding that post encoding continues to occur for both same and cross-race effect (Ho and Pezdek, 2015). This study affirms that post encoding continues to happen towards face recognition proving that faces will continue to change slightly in our minds causing the credibility of eyewitness testimonies to be questioned. The results of the study hints at the fact that our memories are reconstructive meaning that our memories are constantly changing proving that our memories are to be taken with a grain of salt.
The cross-race effect is the reason for many deaths of unarmed black people by the police, which the weapon bias study explained the reasoning behind the incidents. The weapon bias study showed how quickly white participants responded to the black face having a gun when in reality the face was paired with a tool. Further research on this topic will help to shine light on measures we as a society can implement to ensure this effect does not impact anymore innocent lives.
Payne, B. K. (2001). Prejudice and perception: The Role of Automatic and Controlled Processes in Misperceiving a Weapon. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2, 181-192, DOI: 10.I037//0O22-3514.81.2.181.
Ferguson, D. P., Rhodes, G., Lee, K., & Sriram, N. (2001). ‘They all look alike to me’” Prejudice and cross-race face recognition. British journal of psychology, 4, 567-77, DOI:10.1348/000712601162347
Ho, M. R., & Pezdek, K. (2015). Postencoding cognitive processes in the cross-race effect: Categorization and individuation during face recognition. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 3, 771-780, https://doi.org/10.3758/s13423-015-0945-x
Brown, T., I. (2017). Cognitive control, attention, and other race effect in memory [figure]. https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0173579

Umezaki, N. (2017). Are East Asian people actually more indistinguishable from each other than people from other races? [image]. https://www.quora.com/Are-East-Asian-people-actually-more-indistinguishable-from-each-other-than-people-from-other-races

  1. December 2nd, 2019 at 15:47 | #1

    Hi Lensky! I loved how you introduced the cross-race effect by demonstrating that despite our best efforts and confidence in our decisions, our eyewitness testimonies aren’t always so accurate. Prejudices and prior knowledge definitely play into top-down processing. We are constantly bringing things to the table from our previous experiences, which then influence how we recognize and perceive different situations. Your point about familiarizing ourselves with those of different races in order to mitigate the dangers of the CRE is important. One interesting finding from the Tanaka & Simonyi (2016) study is that despite repeated exposure to different races, the CRE still exists. I think that even though repeated familiarization only partially (if at all) decreases the CRE, this exposure to races different from our own is still important in order for all of us to understand, respect, and appreciate one another’s background and stories.

  2. December 6th, 2019 at 09:59 | #2

    Hey Lensky, I really liked how you presented your evidence for the cross race-effect! Leading with the weapon bias was cool because we’ve already talked about that in class and it made it easy to see how the cross-race effect can quickly impact our day to day lives. I thought it was interesting in the Ferguson, Rhodes, and Lee (2001) study that they didn’t find a connection between prejudices and memory for cross racial features. This really makes you think about how our judgments of people are affected by their race even when we don’t think about it directly. This helps us to be more aware and to recognize where our own weaknesses are in order to better connect with those around us.

  3. December 9th, 2019 at 21:29 | #3

    Hi Lensky, I really enjoyed reading about this bias and especially the study that suggested that prejudice and the other-race effect are unrelated. This was interesting because I thought that stored information such as stereotypes and social information affected our processes of face recognition so that we are less accurate at recognizing faces of other races. I was wondering, when you were doing research for this phenomenon did you find any other studies that showed similar results to this one?

  4. aeburn20
    December 12th, 2019 at 20:25 | #4

    I really enjoyed your post! I think this is a very important topic, and it got me thinking more about eyewitness testimonies. Your post reminded me of the TED talk we watched earlier in the semester questioning the reliability of eyewitnesses, and how the inaccuracy of such testimonies can ultimately lead to the wrongful incarceration of an innocent person, which also means that the person responsible for the crime remains on the streets, as was the case with Steve Titus from the video. What I find to be particularly interesting is the fact that eyewitness testimony continues to be used in courtrooms, although they have been scientifically proven to be largely unreliable.

  5. December 16th, 2019 at 16:16 | #5

    Hi Lensky, this is a really interesting post! The other race effect is definitely a significant topic, and it actually happens everyday, especially in current day and age. The phenomenon is prevalent — to be honest, I also had difficulty identifying my classmates of different races during my freshmen year, and I was often misidentified by people of other race as well. However, the result of such a phenomenon is serious, and sometimes it can even lead to terrible tragedy. Just as the weapon bias we discussed in class, we are biased when judging people, and it is hard to avoid such a view, since it has been planted in our mind. However, we should be aware of the fact that our mind could be biased, so we should always look for evidence that is more objectively based (e.g. voice record, finger print, etc.) rather than subjectively based (e.g. eyewitness testimony).

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