Race perception isn’t automatic

Last week’s column for BBC Future describes a neat social psychology experiment from an unlikely source. Three evolutionary psychologists reasoned that that claims that we automatically categorise people by the ethnicity must be wrong. Here’s how they set out to prove it. The original column is here.

For years, psychologists thought we instantly label each other by ethnicity. But one intriguing study proposes this is far from inevitable, with obvious implications for tackling racism.

When we meet someone we tend to label them in certain ways. “Tall guy” you might think, or “Ugly kid”. Lots of work in social psychology suggests that there are some categorisations that spring faster to mind. So fast, in fact, that they can be automatic. Sex is an example: we tend to notice if someone is a man or a woman, and remember that fact, without any deliberate effort. Age is another example. You can see this in the way people talk about others. If you said you went to a party and met someone, most people wouldn’t let you continue with your story until you said if it was a man or a woman, and there’s a good chance they’d also want to know how old they were too.

Unfortunately, a swathe of evidence from the 1980s and 1990s also seemed to suggest that race is an automatic categorisation, in that people effortlessly and rapidly identified and remembered which ethnic group an individual appeared to belong to. “Unfortunate”, because if perceiving race is automatic then it lays a foundation for racism, and appears to put a limit on efforts to educate people to be “colourblind”, or put aside prejudices in other ways.

Over a decade of research failed to uncover experimental conditions that could prevent people instinctively categorising by race, until a trio of evolutionary psychologists came along with a very different take on the subject. Now, it seems only fair to say that evolutionary psychologists have a mixed reputation among psychologists. As a flavour of psychology it has been associated with political opinions that tend towards the conservative. Often, scientific racists claim to base their views on some jumbled version of evolutionary psychology (scientific racism is racism dressed up as science, not racisms based on science, in case you wondered). So it was a delightful surprise when researchers from one of the world centres for evolutionary psychology intervened in the debate on social categorisation, by conducting an experiment they claimed showed that labelling people by race was far less automatic and inevitable than all previous research seemed to show.

Powerful force

The research used something called a “memory confusion protocol”. This works by asking experiment participants to remember a series of pictures of individuals, who vary along various dimensions – for example, some have black hair and some blond, some are men, some women, etc. When participants’ memories are tested, the errors they make reveal something about how they judged the pictures of individuals – what sticks in their mind most and least. If a participant more often confuses a black-haired man with a blond-haired man, it suggests that the category of hair colour is less important than the category of gender (and similarly, if people rarely confuse a man for a woman, that also shows that gender is the stronger category).

Using this protocol, the researchers tested the strength of categorisation by race, something all previous efforts had shown was automatic. The twist they added was to throw in another powerful psychological force – group membership. People had to remember individuals who wore either yellow or grey basketball shirts, and whose pictures were presented alongside statements indicating which team they were in. Without the shirts, the pattern of errors were clear: participants automatically categorised the individuals by their race (in this case: African American or Euro American). But with the coloured shirts, this automatic categorisation didn’t happen: people’s errors revealed that team membership had become the dominant category, not the race of the players.

It’s important to understand that the memory test was both a surprise – participants didn’t know it was coming up – and an unobtrusive measure of racial categorising. Participants couldn’t guess that the researchers were going to make inferences about how they categorised people in the pictures – so if they didn’t want to appear to perceive people on the basis of race, it wouldn’t be clear how they should change their behaviour to do this. Because of this we can assume we have a fairly direct measure of their real categorisation, unbiased by any desire to monitor how they appear.

So despite what dozens of experiments had appeared to show, this experiment created a situation where categorisation by race faded into the background. The explanation, according to the researchers, is that race is only important when it might indicate coalitional information – that is, whose team you are on. In situations where race isn’t correlated with coalition, it ceases to be important. This, they claim, makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. For most of ancestors age and gender would be important predictors of another person’s behaviour, but race wouldn’t – since most people lived in areas with no differences as large as the ones we associate with “race” today (a concept, incidentally, which has little currency among human biologists).

Since the experiment was published, the response from social psychologists has been muted. But supporting evidence is beginning to be reported, suggesting that the finding will hold. It’s an unfortunate fact of human psychology that we are quick to lump people into groups, even on the slimmest evidence. And once we’ve identified a group, it’s also seems automatic to jump to conclusions about what they are like. But this experiment suggests that although perceiving groups on the basis of race might be easy, it is far from inevitable.

12 thoughts on “Race perception isn’t automatic”

  1. There was a Filipina girl in my year at my country Australian primary school. (Isolated places at the time.)

    I only learned this meant “another race” later (or in my later years there), as at the time the idea hadn’t really come up at the school, and to be honest never seemed to be required.

    She was just .

    1. Yes. Some of my cousins are mixed-race. Growing up we just thought they had better tans than the rest of us and I tried to get more sun time to catch up.

  2. Do you have a citation for the original research? The column doesn’t mention their names or the source for the study.

  3. Whoops – it was in there, must have been lost along the way during editing. I’ve added it in, and here’s the citation:

    Kurzban, R., Tooby, J., & Cosmides, L. (2001). Can race be erased? Coalitional computation and social categorization. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 98(26), 15387-15392.


  4. @SteveDGH sadly that is what counts as “works” for a BBC Future link. You can only read them if you are outside the UK

  5. This is very interesting, and makes sense. If you travel and work with people from different places you realize (if you think about this) that you use other clues to figure where people are from. Most important clues are clothes and behavior (how they move, how they pose). Of course that it is much easier listen to them (and try to figure out language) and ask directly 😉

    What I learnt is that trying to classify just by looking, you will mix a lot. But how they dress and behave is much precise (for example you can differentiate Argentineans from Buenos Aires apart from Brazilians from Sao Paulo; differentiate here means that maybe you are a bit better than just chance)

    The more you interact with people from outside your childhood or common group (that can be very mixed, like latin americans for example), you realize that you use more clues. If you are latin american, descendant of European, first time you meet an “oriental” you think “chinese” (maybe north americans will think “japanese”). It does not take much to realize that “oriental” includes a lot of different groups that look very different one of the other (my original perception of “chinese” was drawn from movies and what usually later I figure out are Han Chinese mostly, that they moved all around Asia – Thais, Vietnamese, Koreans, Filipinos all different, however back in my home country all “chinese”).

    Also if you decide on skin color how do you classify depends on your initial cultural setup (and of course how much racist or not it was). But I was surprised that in Asia is more common to say “dark” and they have a lot of grades. With an african friend we were having funny discussion with an iranian that he was saying he was black! the african, a “real black” was laughing at him. For me “black” is the african-american, closer to how the african looked like (Africa is another kaleidoscoip of course). And as a latin american descendant from western european (north italians) I was telling him that we have only 2 colors: white or black! And black means our influence-by-movie some type of people from Africa. South Indians will go under the radar, and they have dark skins (not many Indians visit South America, changed in the last years with the spread of Indians IT companies though)!

    But all this is cultural and social for me. After few seconds you start using the other clues to figure out the groups: clothes, how they dress, how they move, etc. And still you are lucky if you are just a little better than chance in figuring out where people is from.

    1. Scasagra: your comments about learning the finer differences of social/national/ethnic groups through exposure (and the “mixing” of groups when inexperienced) reminded me of something I read a couple of years ago…


      An interesting (to me at least) article on how caricatures reflect on human facial recognition. Specifically, the paragraph:
      “With so many renditions of the same face, I also see examples of what vision scientists call the other-race effect, which addresses why peoples throughout history have believed that those of a different race or ethnicity all look alike. The theory goes that we form our internalized average face by gazing upon people who resemble ourselves. Because members of another race can differ greatly—and all in the same way—from our prototype, we end up disregarding important information for distinguishing among those “others.” ”

      In short, people tend to view variation as “difference from an average”, and if this “average” is poorly formed (or naive in some manner) perception of general traits can overwhelm those specific to individuals…
      …clearer in the article I think.

  6. “…if perceiving race is automatic then it lays a foundation for racism, and appears to put a limit on efforts to educate people to be “colourblind”, or put aside prejudices in other ways.”

    This is where the political conservatism creeps in. The goal of eliminating racism is impeded, not helped, by being purportedly colorblind/colourblind. We all perceive other people’s color – in some studies that’s the first thing that’s perceived. It’s not the recognition of color, but what we are taught to think or decide to do about it that are the problems. And discussion of that is extraordinarily hindered by people pretending to be colorblind.

  7. What I do miss in this article, is the link with “obvious racism”…as it is siad to be a motivation for these researches to find out about the why’s and how to concer racism.
    Because that next step would probably reveale that in multi cultural and multi-racial societies groups will be judged by prejustice. In good and bad tha tis, and overall people tend to think of racism as bad, and also as oneway traffic; only white people can be racists towards hispanic or blak people. so there is a lot more to it…wich is not explained here..nor ar ethere links to more advanced views and studies in that area.

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