Why do people of other races all look alike?

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.

Continue reading

Advertisements

The illusion of attention

You board the train, find a seat and open the latest bestseller by your favourite author. The couple sitting opposite are having a conversation, and the driver announces that there will be a short delay to your journey, but you are so engrossed in your book that you are unaware of these sounds. In fact, you have become almost completely oblivious to your surroundings, and you fail to notice that the train is approaching your stop. You reach the end of a paragraph and, looking up from your book, see the train pulling out of the station…

Everyday experiences like this show us that focused attention has a significant effect on how we perceive the world and, therefore, on what enters into our conscious awareness. This has also been confirmed in the lab, a particularly striking example being the “Invisible Gorilla” experiment, by psychologists Dan Simons of the University of Illinois and Chris Chabris of Union College, New York.

Continue reading