Shocker: The racial observation, ‘You all look alike to me,’ is hard-wired into our brains at birth

July 10, 2019

It’s a phenomenon that occurs when a member of one race looks at an individual of another color. You often hear it framed as a joke—“You all look alike to me”–although it’s really nothing to laugh at, since it’s a form of stereotyping, and even prejudice.

Indeed, scientists at the University of California-Riverside recently discovered that we are hard-wired to process—or not to process—facial differences, based on race. And that tendency occurs in the earliest filters of our thought processes.

The one stipulation: Those of the majority race experience the most pronounced difficulties individuating those of other races. The scientists hypothesize that minorities are exposed more frequently to the features of the majority race—and, therefore, may be able to individuate more easily.

The research, published this week in the journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States (PNAS), was led by UC-Riverside psychologist Brent Hughes. The overriding question posited in the paper: When we observe members of another racial group, are their actual physical features indistinct?

The study participants were 17 white people studying white and black faces on a monitor while lying inside a functional MRI scanner, which identifies changes in brain activity, according to a report by Science Daily. Some experiments were also conducted outside of the MRI.

Hughes and his team looked at the white participants’ high-level visual cortex to see whether it was more tuned in to differences in white faces than black ones. The visual cortex is the first stop for processing impulses from the eyes; the high-level visual cortex specializing in processing faces.

Their findings affirmed previous studies, determining that participants showed a greater tendency to individuate— recognize differences in—the faces of individuals of their own race, and were less able to recognize the differences in persons of other colors. But Hughes’ study went further, demonstrating how deep this tendency runs: as far as our earliest sensory processes.

“Our results suggest that biases for other-race faces emerge at some of the earliest stages of sensory perception,” Hughes wrote in the paper, entitled “Neural Adaptation to faces reveals racial outgroup homogeneity effects in early perception.”

Hughes wrote that the fallout from noticing the differences in members of one own’s race but not others is profound. These early perceptions can cascade, affecting downstream beliefs and behaviors. The implications can range from embarrassing to life-changing: Think of when the wrong suspect in a crime is selected from a lineup.

“We are much more likely to generalize negative experiences if we see individuals as similar or interchangeable parts of a broad social group,” Hughes said.

“Members of minority groups wind up being exposed to more members of majority groups than majority members get exposed to minority members,” he said. “It could be that exposure to individuals of different groups may help the visual system develop expertise that reduces this effect.”

The study shouldn’t be interpreted as a pass for “you all look the same to me,” Hughes said.

“These effects are not uncontrollable,” he said. “These race biases in perception are malleable and subject to individual motivations and goals. In this sense, attitudes, motives and goals can be shaping visual perceptual processes.”

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