Each and every day, we encounter hundreds of faces. When you’re meeting a friend for coffee, you know that you will be able to recognize their face in a crowded coffee shop. Or, at a job interview, you quickly work to assign a name to each face as you are introduced to the interviewers. Is it the face of someone you have met before? Where do you know them from? What is their name?
For most of us, this incredibly complex process occurs quite effortlessly and unconsciously. This is because we have a lifetime of experience with faces, and this experience has helped us become experts in face recognition. However, this expertise is not universal—it’s limited to face categories with which we have the most experience. Typically, these are faces of our own race and age.
In my research, I have been examining the profound deficits we show in recognizing people who are of either a different race or age than us. For example, most young adults have difficulty recognizing the faces of older adults. Likewise, individuals raised in relatively racially uniform environments are prone to misidentifying the faces of people of different racial backgrounds.
“We’ve also discovered that these biases are incredibly resistant to change.”
Babies do not show these same struggles to identify faces of a different age or race. These difficulties begin to appear as early as nine months of age. This suggests that these biases are not innate but rather a product of our environment.
Differing recognition is not related to prejudiced attitudes—biases in face processing actually seem to be the result of a lack of experience with people of different races and ages. This suggests that we may be able to reverse race- or age-related biases in face processing by increasing the amount of contact individuals have with people from diverse backgrounds.
My research explores the underlying explanations for biases in face processing and attempts to address means of reducing these biases. Through behavioral and eye-tracking tests, my collaborators and I have discovered that deficits in perceiving older adult and other-race faces emerge throughout childhood.
We’ve also discovered that these biases are incredibly resistant to change. For example, even senior citizens (who spend considerable time interacting with other older adults) spend less time attending to the features of older adult faces and have difficulty remembering older faces relative to young adult faces. It seems that biases in face processing remain largely stable throughout adulthood. Childhood may be a sensitive period during which to expose individuals to a diverse range of faces to prevent their perceptual systems from narrowing to specific face categories.
This past year, psychology student Maria Wagler ’16 and I conducted a study examining how our perceptions of in-group membership influence our ability to recognize an individual across changes in context, like varying lighting conditions and facial expressions. This work was recently presented at the international meeting of the Vision Sciences Society.
By recognizing deficits in our face perception, we can then look for ways to reduce biases. This will allow us to better empathize with others and treat people who we may outwardly perceive as different from us as Christ would.
Lindsey and Maria’s work has recently been published in Perception Journal, a peer-reviewed scientific journal specializing in the psychology of vision and perception.