Face Recognition and Race
Grade Level: 9th to 12th; Type: Social Science
This project explores to what extent people more easily distinguish between faces of people of their own race or ethnicity compared to those of other races or ethnicities.
- Do test subjects more easily distinguish between the faces of people of their own race or ethnicity compared to those of people of other races or ethnicities?
There is a neurological disorder called prosopagnosia that makes it difficult to impossible for people to distinguish between human faces - in the worst cases, even the faces of close family members. There are obvious evolutionary advantages to being able to recognize people, not the least of which is to distinguish between friends and enemies, and most humans are able to do so with great facility, but none so well, apparently, than infants. It seems that at the age of just a few months infants begin to fine-tune their face recognition skills for the types of faces which they see most often, usually faces of people of their own race or ethnicity. This specialization, however, comes at the expense of recognition-skills for less-frequently encountered facial types. To put it bluntly, human babies learn to be bad at distinguishing people foreign to them. As the saying goes, those foreigners “all look alike.”
- Computer with internet access
- Photographs of people of many different races (search the internet)
- Test subjects
- Print out a large number of photographs of faces of people from a wide range of races. Have several photographs from each racial group. Make all photographs as close to the same size, shape, and quality as possible.
- Ask the subject to identify his own race and ethnicity.
- Show the test subject one photograph from each racial group.
- Mix the selected photographs in with the rest of the photos and lay all photos out in front of the test subject.
- Ask the test subject to select the faces that he was shown earlier.
- Note the racial groups from which photos were correctly identified.
- Compare the above finding to the race and ethnicity of the subject. Do test subjects more easily distinguish between the faces of people of their own race or ethnicity compared to those of people of other races or ethnicities?
Terms/Concepts: prosopagnosia, race, ethnicity
- “It Isn’t Facism,” by Natalie Wolchover, Facto Diem, Scientific Facts, Not Quite Everyday
- "Face-Blind,” by Oliver Sacks, The New Yorker
- “The Other-Race Effect Develops During Infancy: Evidence of Perceptual Narrowing,” by David J. Kelly, Science
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