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Have you ever had the experience that members of another race “all look alike”? One of the most robust phenomena in social perception is the finding that people are better at remembering people from their own race. This effect – called the own-race bias – is often interpreted as the consequence of perceptual expertise, where by people spend more time with members of their own race (e.g., family members, friends, neighbors) and therefore have difficulty differentiating members of other races.

This can have life or death consequences. For instance, approximately 36% of wrongful convictions are due to erroneous cross-race eyewitness identification in which Caucasian witnesses misidentify minority defendants (the lineup on the right includes Ronald Cotton, a man who was wrongly convicted of rape due to a cross-race misidentification).

Our research suggests that when people have trouble recognizing members of another race, it may actually have little to do with the other person’s race and more to do with their social identity. We find that people pay more attention to who is in their own group, regardless of their race. In other words, we can improve our memory of members of another race by identifying ourselves as part of the same group.

In three experiments, William Cunningham and I tested the own-race bias by assigning people to an arbitrary group – for example the “Moons” or the “Suns” – that included both white and black members. Participants watched a series of faces and had a few minutes to learn all the members of both their own group as well as another group. We then asked participants to complete a short filler task to take their minds off the faces and then later administered a brief memory test to see if they could remember the faces presented at the beginning of the study.

In the third experiment, there was a small twist: We assigned people within each group the role of either a “soldier” or a “spy,” telling them their goal was to serve the needs of the group. For spies, the specific goal was to “remain loyal to the Moons (or Suns) but your ultimate goal will be to serve the needs of your group by infiltrating the Suns (or Moons).”

In all three experiments, race had no effect on how well participants remembered members of their own group versus the other group. In general, people remembered members of their own group better than the other group. This was especially true of people who identified strongly with their own group. The people in our studies seemed to care more about their group membership than race – even when the groups were completely trivial.

The “spies” were the exception to this pattern. People assigned to the role of spy had excellent memory for both in-group and out-group members. Spies paid more attention to out-group members because it was they could contribute to contribute to their in-group. In other words, if you can give people the right motivation, they can tell apart members of an out-group.

Please follow this link to download a copy of this paper: www.psych.nyu.edu/vanbavel/lab/documents/VanBavel.Cunningham.2012.PSPB.pdf

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