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When “They” Become Part of “Us”, “They” Don’t All Look Alike

February 25, 2013

By Jay Van Bavel (New York University) and William Cunningham (University of Toronto)

People are remarkably accurate at identifying other people, even after the passage of many years. But this accuracy is limited in one important circumstance:  When remembering people who belong to other racial groups. As the often-heard remark “they all look alike” suggests, perceivers often err when making cross-race identifications. 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 – has long been interpreted as the consequence of perceptual expertise, whereby people spend more time with members of their own race and therefore have difficulty differentiating members of other races (Malpass & Kravitz, 1969).

This inaccuracy, however, may actually have little to do with the other person’s race (Bernstein, Young, & Hugenberg, 2007). Our research suggests that memory of members of another race improves when they identify themselves as members of the same group (Van Bavel & Cunningham, 2012). We find that people are better at differentiating members of their own race because they simply pay more attention to who is in their own group, regardless of their race. As such, group identification may be able to improve many forms of bias in contexts ranging from race relations to eyewitness identification.

In three experiments, we (Jay Van Bavel and William Cunningham) 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 people 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 group versus the other group. In general, people remembered members of their own group more than the other group. This was especially true of people who identified strongly with their group. We concluded that the participants cared more about their group membership than race – even when the groups were completely trivial.


Figure 1. Mediation model showing that the indirect effect of group membership on memory was mediated by attention during the learning task (Experiment I)

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; they paid more attention to out-group members because it was part of their group identity. We concluded that if you can give people the right motivation, they will pay attention to the out-group.

The research shows that there are ways for people to improve their memory of people in other groups. If, for example, people find that racial biases are interfering with their interactions with others, they might considering trying to finding a common group membership that they share (Van Bavel & Cunningham, 2009). For instance, they might see themselves as Americans or Democrats rather than classifying themselves on the basis of skin color or ethnicity. The research also has implications for legal contexts, such as police lineups and eyewitness testimony. Recent research has found that approximately 36% of wrongful convictions are due to erroneous cross-race eyewitness identification in which Caucasian witnesses misidentify minority defendants (Scheck, Neufeld, & Dwyer, 2000).

Author Information


Jay Van Bavel is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at New York University. His research  examines how our social identities and personal values shape our perceptions and evaluations of the social and physical world. He approaches these issues from a social neuroscience perspective, blending theory and methods from social psychology and cognitive neuroscience.


William Cunningham is an Associate Professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Toronto. His research examines the dynamic nature of cognition and emotion. Specifically, his work examines core questions in affective science (the nature and representation of attitudes and emotions) from a cognitive neuroscience perspective.


Bernstein, M. J., Young, S. G., & Hugenberg, K. (2007). The crosscategory effect: Mere social categorization is sufficient to elicit  an own-group bias in face recognition. Psychological Science, 18, 709-712.

Malpass, R. S., & Kravitz, J. (1969). Recognition for faces of own and other “race.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 13, 330-334.

Scheck, B., Neufeld, P., & Dwyer, J. (2000). Actual innocence: Five days to execution and other dispatches from the wrongly convicted. New York: Doubleday.

Van Bavel, J. J., & Cunningham, W. A. (2009). Self-categorization with a novel mixed-race group moderates automatic social and racial biases. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35, 321-335.

Van Bavel, J. J., & Cunningham, W. A. (2012). A social identity approach to person memory: Group membership, collective identification, and social role shape attention and memory. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38, 1566-1578.

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