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The Science Behind ‘They All Look Alike to Me’

The New York Times logo The New York Times 9/20/2015 By RACHEL L. SWARNS

Former tennis star James Blake acknowledges applause during a match at this year's United States Open. © David Goldman/Associated Press Former tennis star James Blake acknowledges applause during a match at this year's United States Open. The outcry was immediate and ferocious when a white New York City police officer tackled James Blake, the retired biracial tennis star, while arresting him this month in a case of mistaken identity. The officer mistook Mr. Blake for a black man suspected of credit card fraud, according to the police.

Racism, pure and simple, some said.

But was it?

Scientists, pointing to decades of research, believe something else was at work. They call it the “other-race effect,” a cognitive phenomenon that makes it harder for people of one race to readily recognize or identify individuals of another.

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It is not bias or bigotry, the researchers say, that makes it difficult for people to distinguish between people of another race. It is the lack of early and meaningful exposure to other groups that often makes it easier for us to quickly identify and remember people of our own ethnicity or race while we often struggle to do the same for others.

That racially loaded phrase “they all look alike to me,” turns out to be largely scientifically accurate, according to Roy S. Malpass, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Texas at El Paso who has studied the subject since the 1960s. “It has a lot of validity,” he said.

Looking for examples? There is no shortage — in the workplace, at schools and universities, and, of course, on the public stage.

Lucy Liu, the actress, has been mistaken for Lisa Ling, the journalist. “It’s like saying Hillary Clinton looks like Janet Reno,” Ms. Liu told USA Today.

Samuel L. Jackson, the actor, took umbrage last year when an entertainment reporter confused him with the actor Laurence Fishburne during a live television interview.

“Really? Really?” said Mr. Jackson, chiding the interviewer. “There’s more than one black guy doing a commercial. I’m the ‘What’s in your wallet?’ black guy. He’s the car black guy. Morgan Freeman is the other credit card black guy.”

The actor Samuel L. Jackson took umbrage when an entertainment reporter for a Los Angeles television station confused him with the actor Laurence Fishburne. © Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters The actor Samuel L. Jackson took umbrage when an entertainment reporter for a Los Angeles television station confused him with the actor Laurence Fishburne. And as a Washington correspondent, I managed a strained smile every time white officials and others remarked on my striking resemblance to Condoleezza Rice, then the secretary of state in the Bush administration. (No, we do not look alike.)

Psychologists say that starting when they are infants and young children, people become attuned to the key facial features and characteristics of the those around them. Whites often become accustomed to focusing on differences in hair color and eye color. African-Americans grow more familiar with subtle shadings of skin color.

“It’s a product of our perceptual experience,” said Christian A. Meissner, a professor of psychology at Iowa State University, “the extent to which we spend time with, the extent to which we have close friends of another race or ethnicity.”

(Minorities tend to be better at cross-race identification than whites, Professor Meissner said, in part because they have more extensive and meaningful exposure to whites than the other way around.)

Distinguishing between two people of a race different from your own is certainly not impossible, cognitive experts say, but it can be difficult, even for those who are keenly aware of their limitations.

Alice O’Toole, a face-recognition expert and professor of behavioral and brain sciences at the University of Texas at Dallas, admits that she often confuses two of her Chinese graduate students, despite her expertise.

“It’s embarrassing, really embarrassing,” Professor O’Toole, the director of the university’s Face Perception Research Lab, said. “I think almost everyone has experienced it.”

But as Mr. Blake’s case has demonstrated, the other-race effect can have serious consequences, particularly in policing and the criminal justice system.

Professor Malpass, who has trained police officers and border patrol agents, urges law enforcement agencies to make sure black or Hispanic officers are involved when creating lineups of black and Hispanic suspects. And he warns of the dangers of relying on cross-racial identifications from eyewitnesses, who can be fallible.

The good news is that we can improve our cross-racial perceptions, researchers say, particularly if there is a strong need to do so. A white woman relocating to Accra, Ghana, for instance, would heighten her ability to distinguish between black faces, just as a black man living in Shanghai would enhance his ability to recognize Asians. (Mr. Malpass believes that people who need to identify those of other races — in the workplace or elsewhere — are more likely to be successful than people who simply have meaningful experiences with members of other racial groups.)

In the meantime, people should remember that it can take time and effort to decode faces across color lines, said Professor Meissner, who found that he was sometimes confused for other white men by Hispanics when he lived in Miami and El Paso.

“I don’t think we should be offended,” he said. “This is really an ability issue. And a very unfortunate issue for Mr. Blake.”

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