Cross-race effect

Cross-race effect

Cross-race effect (sometimes called cross-race bias or other-race bias) is the tendency for people of one race to have difficulty recognizing and processing faces and facial expressions of members of a race or ethnic group other than their own.[1]

The cross-race effect is scientifically explored in the fields of behavioral biology, human ethology (also called urban ethology), and social psychology. In this neural phenomenon of face recognition, humans perform better when they recognize faces and emotional facial expressions of persons of their own race in comparison to faces and emotional facial expressions of persons of other races. In Social Psychology the cross-race effect is described as the "In-Group Advantage". In other fields, the effect can be seen as a special form of the "In-group advantage", since it is only applied in interracial or inter-ethnic situations, whereas “In-Group Advantage” can refer to mono-ethnic situations as well.[2]

Deeper study of the cross-race effect has also demonstrated two types of processing for the recognition of faces, featural and holistic. It has been found that holistic processing (which occurs beyond individual parts of the face) is more commonly used in same-race situations, but there is an experience effect, which means that as a person gains more experience with those of race he or she will begin to use more holistic processing. Featural processing is much more commonly used regarding an unfamiliar stimulus or face.[3]


Major Theoretical Approaches

"How To Spot A Jap" (1942), produced by the United States Army, attempts to (erroneously) describe the visual differences between Japanese and Chinese, a distinction that was difficult for US soldiers. Click for a larger image.


The first research on the cross-race effect was published in 1914.[4] It stated that humans tend to perceive people of other races than themselves to all look alike. All else being equal, individuals of a given race are distinguishable from each other in proportion to their familiarity, to our contact with the race as a whole. Thus, to the uninitiated White Caucasian, all Asian people look alike, while to Asian people, all White Caucasian people look alike. This does not hold true when people of different races familiarize themselves with races different from their own.

In-Group Advantage

Cross-race effect has a strong connection with the phenomenon called in-group advantage; see ingroup and outgroup. In-Group advantage means that persons evaluate and judge members of their own group as better and fairer than members of other groups (Out-group disadvantage). The meaning of group can refer to family, teammates on a soccer team, classmates, different races, even all of humanity. The important thing is that the group be defined from something else, e.g. one’s family from another family or the human race from animals. Social psychologists proved in the last 30 years [5] that even the smallest aspect of differentiation, like preference for flavor of ice cream or style of music, can trigger In-Group-Advantage. If the group-building factor is the race of a person, then cross-race effect appears. The favoritism of in-group members also results from the decreased inborn motivation to read the face of a person of another group or culture. Hess, Senecal & Kirouac [6] showed in 1996 that the motivation to decode the emotional facial expression instantly decreased when the experimental subject realized that the face belonged to a person of another race.

Cross-Race Effect and Emotion Recognition

A meta-analysis of several studies about emotion recognition in facial expressions revealed that persons could recognize and interpret the emotional facial expression of a person of their own race faster and better than of a person of other races. These findings apply to all races in the same way.[7] Some studies show that other races, compared to one’s own race, have differently shaped faces and different details within a facial expression. This makes it difficult for members of other races to decode emotional expressions.[8][9] In August 2009, the Journal of Current Biology reported on experiments showing that, for example, Chinese people do not look at the mouth of a person to determine his emotion. In Western cultures, however, anger and sadness is often displayed via the shape of the mouth. This shows how a person can feel they cannot "read" the faces of other cultures. Inner-brain processes also originally hinder the correct decoding and storage of faces of other races. That is why one often has the feeling that people of other races "all look alike". Over time these perceptional processes change and adapt and the Cross-Race-Effect diminishes.

Another study that supports cross-race identification occurs in inner-brain processes is a study done by Goldinger, He, and Papesh in 2009.[10] Forty Caucasian students from Arizona State University participated in the study. These participants were presented with fifty-two pictures. There were 26 Caucasian faces and 26 Japanese faces in these pictures. The faces were approximately the same size as real faces when they were displayed on a monitor. The eye movements of the participants were then monitored as they viewed the pictures. A chin rest maintained the participants’ viewing angle, and the path of both eyes was continuously monitored throughout the entirety of the study. This study supported the idea of cross-race effect, since the participants all showed superior identification with the faces of people of the same race.

Perceptual Expertise Hypothesis

The perceptual expertise hypothesis suggests that people recognize emotions in people of the same race with greater accuracy because individuals tend to gather as friends and spend more time with people of the same race than people of a different race. This is called the perceptual expertise hypothesis. Therefore, with greater exposure comes greater expertise and ability to identify emotions of the people in the same racial group whereas less experience and interaction with people of a different race leads to less expertise in identifying faces. To test out whether this was true, an experiment was conducted in which participants were given much practice identifying emotions in cross race facial expressions. If this hypothesis was supported, that experience increases the accuracy, then the cross race effect should have been eliminated with greater exposure and practice. However, results have shown that practice leads to statistically insignificant gains. This means that perceptual expertise alone cannot be held accountable for the cross race effect.

Results of Elfenbein and Ambady’s meta-analysis [11] from the year 2002 use another term to refer to this perceptual expertise hypothesis and call it "cultural emotional learning". This essentially refers to familiarity in that the more time spent with members of different races, the more familiar one is with different races, and the more cross-race effect is diminished. Important factors of the learning process are the duration and frequency of exposure and the motivation of the trainee. The brain automatically learns to process the information better and more accurately.[12][13]

Similarly, one may point to the following study by Paul Ekman,[14] who is nowadays more known for his studies on micro-expressions; see: Microexpression. Ekman und Friesen observed in 1976 that solely the contact with a foreign race raises the recognition rate of facial expressions. They showed pictures of white Americans to a tribe in New Guinea. The Americans either smiled, looked sad or angry. The members of the tribe who had been exposed to foreigners before could read the emotions in the American faces much better. This experiment was repeated by Ducci, Arcuri, Georgis and Sineshaw in 1982. [15] This time they went to Ethiopia and compared the recognition rate of Ethiopians who lived in cities and had contact with a lot of Americans with Ethiopians who lived in remote villages.

Conversely, results of a project funded by the Federal German Ministry of Economies and Technologies - Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology (Germany) and the European Social Fund in 2008, showed that even with e-learning software, the Cross-Race-Effect can be significantly diminished.[16] Additionally, a positive correlation between age and accuracy in recognizing other race faces was also stated in the results. This may be due to the fact that with age comes more exposure and practice identifying the faces of other races.[17]

Effects of Social Cognition

Another reason cross-race-effect may occur is that our perceptions are often affected by our motivations, expectations, and social cognition. Overall, the creation of norms have shaped and biased even simple perceptions such as line lengths. In terms of our perception of faces, studies have shown that racially ambiguous faces that have been identified as one race or another based on their hairstyle, are identified as having more features of the racial category represented by the hairstyle. Similarly, faces of an ambiguous but equal shade are interpreted as darker or lighter when accompanied by the label of either Black or White, respectively. [18]

Major Empirical Findings of Cross-Race Effect

General Support

A study performed by Arbuthnott, Jackie, Marcon, Meissner, and Pfeifer in 2008 [19] used 29 Caucasian participants and 24 Native American participants. The Caucasian participants were all students from the University of Regina whereas the Native American participants were recruited from Northlands College. Participants were placed in front of a computer and were presented with six target faces of one race, either Caucasian or First Nations. The faces were all viewed for three seconds each. Immediately after the study phase followed a distractor phase in which the participants were told to change “one phrase (family outing) into a related phase (amusement park)”. Results found that even with the distractor phase, there still remained evidence for the cross race effect.

In a study done by Pezdek, Blandon-Gitlin, and Moore [20] and published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, there were 186 participants (62 kindergarteners, 62 third-graders, and 62 young adults. Half of the participants in each age group were white; half were black, and they were all recruited from similar socioeconomic circumstances. The study consisted of a presentation phase followed by a recognition phase. After the recognition phase the researchers found that same-race identification was more accurate, and the cross-race effect remained consistent throughout the age groups.

Immersion vs. Upbringing

Another study that provides evidence for the increase in accuracy of emotion recognition for cross-race situations was conducted by Elfenbein and Ambady.[21] Elfenbein and Ambady gathered a group of Non-Asian American participants, Chinese American participants, Chinese participants that have been in America for some time, and Chinese participants living in China. They then conducted a similar assessment as the study previously mentioned in which the participants were asked to identify the emotion portrayed in various faces of these four groups of people. Results showed that each “in-group” was better at detecting emotions of other “in-group” members with the exception of Chinese participants who had been living in the U.S. These participants were better at identifying the faces of non-Asian Americans than Chinese faces. Therefore, familiarity and belonging in an “in-group” can result not only from where people are from, but also by being immersed in a different setting for a short amount of time.

Holistic and Featural

In another study by Tanak et al.,[22] the researchers tested 21 Caucasian undergraduates and 21 Asian undergraduates both recruited from places deemed primarily Caucasian, holistic and featural methods of processing for recognition. The Caucasian participants demonstrated holistic processing for the recognition of Caucasian faces and featural processing for recognition of unfamiliar Asian faces. Given that participants in this study had extensive exposure to members of their own race, these findings indicate that experience of own-race faces promotes holistic processing. Consistent with the experience claim, Asian participants who had frequent interactions with Caucasian people demonstrated comparable levels of holistic recognition for Caucasian faces as they did for Asian faces. The obtained results are compatible with the account that experience is important for holistic face recognition.

Applications of Cross-Race Effect

Cross-Race Identification Bias

This effect refers to the decreased ability of people of one race to recognize faces and facial expressions of people of another race. This differs from the cross-race bias only because this effect is found mostly in eyewitness situations: during eyewitness identification as well as while identifying a suspect in a line-up. When put in these situations, many people feel as if races other than their own look alike and have difficulty distinguishing between various members of different ethnic groups. This effect is also known as the misinformation effect, since the people in this effect are considered to be misinformed about other races, and therefore have difficulty identifying other races. In a study dealing with eyewitnesses testimony, Sheree Josephson of Weber State University examined forty participants in a racially diverse area of the U.S. They had subjects watch a video of a property crime being committed, then in the next 24 hours came to pick the suspect out of a photo line-up. Most of the participants in the study either misidentified the suspect or stated the suspect was not in the line-up at all. Correct identification of the suspect occurred more often when the eyewitness and the suspect were of the same race. [23]

In one study done by Platz and Hosch,[24] 86 convenience store clerks were asked to identify three customers: one white, one black, and one Mexican American, all of whom stopped in the store earlier that day and made a purchase. The results of the study showed that each of the clerks identified customers belonging to their own race accurately, but when attempting to identify members of the other races, they stated “they all look alike.” Cross-Race Identification Bias shows how prone people are to making false identifications when asked to identity people from a racial or ethnic background other than their own. Similarly, a study found that alcohol intoxication reduces the overall accuracy of other-race bias in face recognition. [25]

Economic consequences of Cross-Race Effect

In a globalized world, in which different cultures and races collaborate and negotiate about contracts, licenses, rights and political decisions, one clearly sees the negative impacts of the cross-race effect. Prof. Thomas (Department of Intercultural Communication, Regensburg, Germany) stated that at least 50% of Western-Chinese negotiations fail due to an impaired communication. Even signed contracts lead in 60–70% of the cases to suboptimal results. "Trends in Managing Mobility 2007" [26] analysed that 30% of the failed negotiations can be indirectly traced back to the Cross-Race-Effect. Consequences of the Cross-Race Effect include reduced emotional intelligence, bad evaluation of the trustworthiness, low abilities to communicate, missing empathy and a decreased ability to judge the overall situation of a negotiation.

Ways to Reduce Cross-Race Effect

A study was done in which participants were forewarned about cross-race effect and how viewing individuals holistically according to stereotypes does not lead to the correct identification of facial expressions. Instead, participants were encouraged to focus on individual facial features. Interestingly enough, results from this study showed that the cross-race effect could be reduced and sometimes even eliminated when participants were wary of it. Therefore, cross race effect may be a result of people using stereotypes to holistically process faces rather than analytically view individual parts of faces to identify an emotion. This study also shows the effect education may have in helping our society to reduce cross-race effect as a whole. When individuals are more aware of how they may be falling into the trap of stereotyping, they can make accurate judgments about people. [27]


There have been many studies to show that the cross-race effect does affect how people perceive the emotions and faces of people of other races. There are negative effects that come from the inaccuracy of identifying faces and emotions of different races; it could lead to embarrassment of those who inaccurately identify and offense and anger to those who are wrongly labeled. Therefore, this is an effect that exists in society that needs to be reduced in order to decreased the negative use of stereotypes. There have been many studies outlining the evidence for the effect, but not many outlining ways to reduce the effect. Therefore, there needs to be more studies in which the cross-race effect can be minimized and eliminated. There also need to be more studies done on whether this effect is purely biological, or more social in order to find if a solution is actually possible. Also, as previously mentioned, opportunities for the education of people about this effect is necessary so that individuals know that this effect exists and will be more cautious when interacting with people of a different racial background.

See also


  1. ^ Influencing Factors of the different Recognition Rates of Faces of your own Ethnic group and Faces of other ethnic groups (Cross-Race Bias)
  2. ^ e.g. M. Beaupre (2006): An Ingroup Advantage for Confidence in Emotion Recognition Judgments: The Moderating Effect of Familiarity With the Expressions of Outgroup Members. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Band 32(1), S. 16-26.
  3. ^ Tanak, J. W., Kiefe, M., & Bukac, C. M. (2003). A holistic account of the own-race effect in face recognition: evidence from a cross-cultural stud. Elsevier.
  4. ^ Feingold CA (1914). The influence of environment on identification of persons and things. Journal of Criminal Law and Police Science 5:39–51.
  5. ^ 2
  6. ^ Hess, U.; Kappas, A.; Bause, R. (1995): The intensity of facial expression is determined by underlying affective states and social situations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Band 69(2), S. 280-288
  7. ^ Elfenbein, H.A. & Ambidi, N. (2002): On the universality and cultural specificity of emotion recognition: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, Band 128(2), S. 203-235
  8. ^ Anthony, T.; Cooper, C. & Mullen, B. (1992): Cross-racial facial identification: A social cognitive integration. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Band 18, S. 296–301
  9. ^ Sporer, S.L. (2001a): Recognizing Faces of Other Ethnic Groups. Public Policy, and Law, Band 7(1), S. 36-97.
  10. ^ Goldinger, S., He, Y., Papesh, M. (2009) Deficits in Cross-Race Face Learning: Insights from Eye Movements and Pupillometry. Journal of Experimental Psychology, Vol. 35 (5), 1105-1122.
  11. ^ Elfenbein, H. A. & Ambady, N. (2003). When familiarity breeds accuracy: Cultural exposure and facial emotion recognition. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Vol. 85(2), 276-290
  12. ^ Sporer, S.L. (2001a): Recognizing Faces of Other Ethnic Groups. Public Policy, and Law, Band 7(1), S. 36-97.
  13. ^ Sporer, S.L. (2001b): The Cross-Race Effect. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, Band 7(1), S. 170-200
  14. ^ Ekman and Friesen, 1976 P. Ekman and W. Friesen, Pictures of facial affect, Consulting Psychologists Press, Palo Alto, CA (1976).
  15. ^ Ducci, L., L. Arcuri, T. W/ Georgis, and T. Sineshaw. "Emotion Recognition in Ethiopia: The Effect of Familiarity with Western Culture on Accuracy of Recognition." Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology 13.3 (1982): 340-51.
  16. ^ Global Emotion Project "Reduction of the Cross-Race-Effect by applying the game-based E-Learning Software: Decoding Chinese Faces"
  17. ^ Goodman, G.S., Sayfan, L., Lee, J.S., Sandhei, M., Walle-Olsen, A., Magnussen, S.,Pezdek, K., Arredondo, P. (2007). The Development of Memory for Own-and-Other-Race Faces. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, Vol. 98(4), 233-242.
  18. ^ Corneille, O., Potter, T., Hugenberg, K. (2007). Applying the attractor field model to social cognition: perceptual discrimination is facilitated, but memory is impaired for faces displaying evaluatively congruent expressions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Vol. 93(3), 335-352.
  19. ^ Arbuthnott, K., Jackie, L., Marcon, J., Meissner, C., Pfeifer, J. (2008). Examining the Cross-Race Effect in Lineup Identification Using Caucasian and First Nations Samples. Canadian Journal of Behavioral Science, Vol. 40 (1), 52-57.
  20. ^ Pezdek, K., Blandon-Gitlin, I., & Moore, C. (2003). Children’s Face Recognition Memory: More Evidence for the Cross-Race Effect. Journal of Applied Psychology, 88(4), 760-763.
  21. ^ Elfenbein, H. A. & Ambady, N. (2003). When familiarity breeds accuracy: Cultural exposure and facial emotion recognition. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Vol. 85(2), 276-290
  22. ^ Tanak, J. W., Kiefe, M., & Bukac, C. M. (2003). A holistic account of the own-race effect in face recognition: evidence from a cross-cultural stud. Elsevier.
  23. ^ Josephson, S. & Holmes, M. (2008). Cross-race recognition deficit and visual attention: do they all look (at faces) alike?. Proceeding ETRA ‘08 Proceedings of the 2008 symposium on Eye tracking research & applications. ACM New York, NY, USA.
  24. ^ Platz, S. J., & Hosch, H. M. (1988). Crossracial/ethnic eyewitness identification: A field study. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 18 (11), 972-984.
  25. ^ Hilliar, K.,Kemp, R.,Denson,T. (2010) Now Everyone Looks The Same: Alcohol Intoxication Reduces The Own-Race Bias in Face Recognition. Law and Human Behavior, Vol. 34(5), 367-368.
  26. ^ ECA International (2007): Trends in Managing Mobility 2007
  27. ^ Hugenberg, K., Miller, J., Claypool, H. M., (2007). Categorization and individuation in the cross-race recognition deficit: Toward a solution to an insidious problem. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. Vol. 43, 334 - 340.

Further reading

  • Brigham, J. C., Bennett, L. B., Meissner, C. A., & Mitchell, T. L. (2006). The influence of race on eyewitness memory. In R. Lindsay, D. Ross, J. Read, & M. Toglia, (Eds). Handbook of Eyewitness Psychology: Memory for People, (pp. 257–281). Lawrence Erlbaum & Associates.
  • Marcon, J. L., Meissner, C. A., & Malpass, R. S. (in press). Cross-race effect in eyewitness identification. In B. Cutler’s (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Psychology & Law. Sage Publications
  • Meissner, C. A., & Brigham, J. C. (2001). Thirty years of investigating the own-race bias in memory for faces: A meta-analytic review. Psychology, Public Policy, & Law, 7, 3-35.
  • Sporer, S. L. (2001). Recognizing faces of other ethnic groups: An integration of theories. Psychology, Public Policy, & Law, 7, 36-97.

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