How do I distinguish Africans by appearance

"They all look the same"

We are masters at recognizing faces. Even if we can't remember a person's name, we usually know very well whether we've seen them before or not. In general, however, this only applies to faces from our own ethnic group - we are much less able to recognize faces from other ethnic groups. A “white person” (Caucasian) can recognize and distinguish faces of other Caucasians very well, while it is difficult for African or Asian faces. Why is that? One possibility could be that African or Asian faces are more similar to one another than is the case with Caucasian faces - but this is not true, because the differences in facial features are similar in all the ethnic groups examined. Another possibility would be that only Caucasians are poorly able to distinguish the faces of other ethnic groups, while for example Africans or Asians are better at distinguishing faces of other ethnic groups. But that's not true either, because the so-called “other race effect” occurs in all ethnic groups. Rather, the explanation is that in the course of our lives we are primarily in contact with people from our own ethnic group and therefore know a lot of different faces from our own group, but not from other ethnic groups. This one-sided gathering of experience means that we can primarily distinguish between faces of our own ethnic group.

A research group around David Kelley now wanted to know at what age the “other race effect” occurs. Do only adults show such different abilities in recognizing different faces, or can children and babies differentiate better between faces of their own ethnic group compared to faces of other ethnic groups? Findings from other research groups suggest that the “other race effect” develops early on. However, David Kelley and his colleagues wanted to know more, so they presented three, six, and nine-month-old Caucasian babies with faces from several ethnic groups (including Caucasian, Asian, and African). Since babies cannot be asked whether they recognize a face, the researchers filmed the babies' gaze behavior when looking at the faces. From the gaze behavior they then concluded whether a face was recognized or not. The results show that the “other race effect” is not yet present in three-month-old babies, but that it develops by the age of nine months. At nine months of age, the babies showed a clear “other race effect” in that they could only differentiate well between Caucasian faces, but not between other faces. Interestingly, the three-month-old babies could look the same between all faces Well distinguish. Compared to them, the nine-month-old babies were not better on Caucasian faces, but on all other faces worse become. This may be due to the fact that certain facial features, which allow a good distinction in one's own ethnic group, are undiagnostic in other ethnic groups. Europeans, for example, are used to differentiating between blonde, red and brown hair, but pay less attention to variations in dark hair colors such as those prevalent in Asian or African cultures.

The “other race effect” is particularly important in a legal context when witnesses are supposed to identify possible perpetrators of other ethnic groups. For example, how is an African supposed to recognize an Asian perpetrator if all Asians look more or less the same to him? Especially in such situations (which are becoming more and more common in multicultural societies) it is crucial to know that we cannot recognize and differentiate all faces equally well. Testimony, especially when it comes to recognizing faces of other ethnic groups, can also be false.

Kelley, D. J., Quinn, P. C., Slater, A. M., Lee, K., Liezhong, G., & Pascalis, O. (2007). The other-race effect develops during infancy: Evidence of perceptual narrowing. Psychological Science, 18(12), 1084-1089.

© Experience Research 2007, all rights reserved