Race as a visual feature: using visual search and perceptual discrimination tasks to understand face categories and the cross-race recognition deficit

J Exp Psychol Gen. 2000 Dec;129(4):559-74. doi: 10.1037//0096-3445.129.4.559.


One of the most familiar empirical phenomena associated with face recognition is the cross-race (CR) recognition deficit whereby people have difficulty recognizing members of a race different from their own. Most researchers assume that the CR deficit is caused by failure to generalize perceptual encoding expertise from same-race (SR) faces to CR faces. However, this explanation ignores critical differences in the social cognitions and feature coding priorities associated with SR and CR faces. On the basis of data from visual search and perceptual discrimination tasks, it appears that the deficit occurs because people emphasize visual information specifying race at the expense of individuating information when recognizing CR faces. In particular, it is possible to observe a paradoxical improvement in both detection and perceptual discrimination accuracy for CR faces that is limited to those who recognize them poorly. These findings support a new explanation for the CR recognition deficit based on feature coding differences between CR and SR faces, and appear incompatible with similarity-based models of face categories.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Continental Population Groups*
  • Face*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Recognition, Psychology*
  • Visual Perception