What do most Asians have in common?

"Asians all look the same"

It is difficult for Europeans to distinguish between Chinese, Japanese and Koreans. Asians, on the other hand, think that Europeans all look similar. The psychologist Jürgen Kaufmann explains the reason.

Mr. Kaufmann, to us Europeans, Asians all look the same, Koreans and Japanese are difficult to distinguish. Is it the same for the Asians with us?

Yes. This effect has been demonstrated in different groups such as Europeans, Asians and Africans in both directions. However, it seems to be somewhat more pronounced in European test subjects, which is probably due to the fact that Asians have more "contact" with European faces through films, for example, than the other way around. Experience with representatives of the other group is a very important factor. People who have a lot of, and not just superficial, contact with the other group do not find that people from Asia, for example, look alike. Of practical relevance - for example in the case of witness statements - it is above all that the «wrong decision signals» for faces from other groups increase sharply. Outside the laboratory, this means that the risk of mistaking an innocent person for the perpetrator is even higher for foreign groups than for your own.

What characteristics do we look for when we look at someone or try to recognize them?

There is a perceptual psychological as well as a social psychological explanation. Our research on person recognition suggests that the former plays the more important role. It states that faces of other ethnic groups are not so well differentiated because the visual distinguishing features for European and Asian faces are different. In the course of their development, people learn by means of which characteristics they can distinguish different faces and which are not. An influential idea was that in the course of this learning a kind of multi-dimensional face space is formed in the human brain, in which each dimension represents an identifier which is useful for differentiating between face identities. So what you have learned does not apply to the faces of other ethnic groups.

And what is the socio-psychological approach?

The rather social-psychological approach is based on the rough assumption that faces of other ethnic groups are categorized as representatives of an “out-group” on the basis of certain, quickly recognizable characteristics (e.g. skin color or the shape of the eyes). The consequence of this is that later necessary recognition processes would be aborted.

What characteristics do people from Asia pay attention to? Or from other continents?

There are some studies that have looked at eye movements when looking at faces. According to these studies, western viewers initially fixate primarily on the eyes and mouth, while Asians tend to fixate on the area between the eyes. Of course, this does not necessarily mean that other properties are not used for recognition, because characteristics in the immediate vicinity of the point are also perceived. Which features are used also depends on the familiarity of a face.

What role do the eyes, ears, the mouth or perhaps the hair play?

No matter where people come from, they use features of shape as well as texture or surface reflection to recognize faces. The shape includes the external shape of the face, the three-dimensional structure, the shape of individual features such as eyes, nose and ears, but also their spatial relationship to one another. Texture includes, for example, the color and purity of the skin, the distribution of light and shadow, the beard and the color of the eyes. In general it can be said that people try more or less automatically to use all available features. Especially with unknown faces, those that differ from the norm (based on one's own group) are interesting. Europeans vary e.g. B. stronger in eye and hair color than Asians. When learning faces, there is also a shift in the relevance of external ones - such as B. ears, head shape and hairstyle - and internal attributes such as eyes, nose, mouth. In the case of unfamiliar faces, the internal features are relatively poorly represented, and we rely more on the external ones.

What does that mean?

This explains why we sometimes don't recognize someone who we know only fleetingly when they have a new hairstyle or a new hair color. This does not usually happen with familiar faces. It is also interesting that we can recognize a familiar face a little faster if it shows a facial expression that is typical for that person. And that although the recognition of identity works relatively independently of the emotion shown.

What role does the voice play?

Something similar to “own-race bias” was occasionally cited for voices, but in contrast to faces it refers less to physical than to learned features, such as the accent. Unknown voices that speak the dialect of the listener are somewhat better recognized and individualized than known voices with a foreign dialect. As I said, this is independent of physical characteristics. So if an Asian-looking person speaks perfect Swiss German, their voice should be better recognized by Swiss dialect speakers than that of a Swiss who speaks High German. However, there is significantly less research work on this phenomenon than on “own-race bias” in faces. Overall, the voice plays a not insignificant role in recognizing known people, probably also because we usually experience voice and face together in everyday life.

Can you actually learn to remember faces better?

According to studies, the ability seems to be largely constant from early adulthood - at least without intervention - throughout life. An improvement over time is at least not excluded. There are big differences between individuals: While some people practically never forget a face they have seen, others even confuse the faces of family members in extreme cases. We are currently working to investigate whether poor facial recognizers can benefit permanently from a certain type of training. There is still a lot of research to be done on this exciting topic.

Dr. Jürgen Kaufmann is a psychologist and researches and teaches at the University of Jena. Among other things, he works on the interdisciplinary research project “Person Perception”.