Research sheds new light on race recognition

14 August 2015

Research from The Australian National University (ANU) provides a new understanding of why people often struggle to recognise faces from different racial groups, which can be the cause of wrongful identification in criminal cases.

The research shows that people's ability to more easily recognise members of their own race is primarily due to their life experiences, contradicting an existing theory that people simply pay more attention to faces of their own ethnicity and can improve their recognition of other races paying by more attention.

Lulu Wan, lead researcher and PhD student in the ANU School of Psychology, said paying more attention was not answer.

"No matter how hard you try, if you don't have that early life exposure, you will still struggle," said Ms Wan, whose research paper is published in the journal Cognition.

Ms Wan said the research could have implications for eye witness testimony and evidence from police line-ups presented in court.

"Eyewitnesses need to have had plenty of experience with people of the offender's race. Just trying harder to recognise someone won't help," she said.

"This could help explain why people misidentify criminal offenders, which can result in sending the wrong people to jail.

"If we're looking at eye-witness testimony from someone of a different race to the offender, their memory might be less reliable than someone of the same race."

The research began in 2012 and involved five studies and more than 400 participants of Asian and Caucasian ethnicities.

Co-researcher Professor Elinor McKone said they found a person's experience, particularly in early life, is the main driver of their ability to recognise faces.

"If you grew up in multi-cultural Australia and had early exposure to a multi-ethnic environment, you're going to be as good at recognising faces of other races as you are your own," she said.

"If you have more experience around people of your own race, then you will be much better at recognising these faces."

The findings could also have an impact on the security industry.

"There are some professions where this is quite critical," Professor McKone said.

"If you were employing someone in say, passport control, you may well want to find people who are good at recognising all races."