"All Americans look alike" is a common joke in Asia and a similar sentiment is expressed in virtually every other country populated by a race different than its tourists.   And to some degree it is true.  Most people find it much harder to recognize faces of people from different races than their own.

During a 15-month research project funded by the  Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), Teesside University academic Dr. Kazuyo Nakabayashi will carry out experiments in Japan and the UK and collate behavioral and eye movement data.

The study will involve asking students from different races to look at Oriental and Caucasian faces in photographs and online and will examine the ‘recognition keys’ they use – their eye movement, for example.

“With CCTV picture quality still pretty poor the police rely on eye-witnesses when there is an incident, say a man attacked in a town centre.   But if all the victim and other and eye-witnesses can say was that the attacker was a Japanese man, it doesn’t give the authorities much to work on for the picture portrait,” says Nakabayashi, a Senior Lecturer in Psychology with the University’s Social Futures Institute.

“There appear to be some levels of stereotyping, or cognitive shortcuts, when it comes to facial recognition of people from different races, but we don’t have a satisfactory explanation for this.  The research will examine the perceptual and cognitive processes underlying cross-racial recognition. Understanding more about these mechanisms will have important theoretical and practical implications, for example in eyewitness testimonies,” she says.

Nakabayashi will be the principal investigator for the research team, which includes Toby Lloyd-Jones, Professor of Psychology at Swansea University, Amina Memon, Professor of Psychology at University of London Royal Holloway, and research fellow Natalie Butcher based at Teesside University.

“We will record eye movements while people look at a set of white faces and a set of oriental faces to find out which parts of the face they look at and how much time they spend on each feature," Nakabayashi  says.  "After that they will be asked to identify the faces just presented from a larger set of faces.”