I’ve seen The Departed twice, but I still don’t understand it. The first time I watched it, I was utterly confused, and the plot still didn’t make much sense on the second viewing. I know exactly why this is – it’s because I find it very hard to tell the difference between Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon. I’ve been told that this might have something to do with the “other-race effect,” which makes it difficult for us to identify people of other races or ethnic groups. But I’m not so sure – I can easily distinguish Robert DeNiro from Jack Nicholson, or Humphrey Bogart from Cary Grant.
Nevertheless, the other race effect is a well established phenomenon that we’ve known about for nearly a hundred years. “To the uninitiated American,” wrote Gustave Feingold in 1914, “all Asiatics look alike, while to the Asiatics, all White men look alike.”
But why does this happen? It could be because we have more experience of members of our own race and so find it easier remembering their faces. Or it could be because people of other races are generally perceived to have fewer unique personal attributes and, therefore, to have more in common with one another. These explanations aren’t mutually exclusive, and two recent studies provide evidence for both.