Perceptions of race

Trends Cogn Sci. 2003 Apr;7(4):173-179. doi: 10.1016/s1364-6613(03)00057-3.


UNTIL RECENTLY, EXPERIMENTS ON PERSON PERCEPTION HAD LED TO TWO UNWELCOME CONCLUSIONS: (1) people encode the race of each individual they encounter, and (2) race encoding is caused by computational mechanisms whose operation is automatic and mandatory. Evolutionary analyses rule out the hypothesis that the brain mechanisms that cause race encoding evolved for that purpose. Consequently, race encoding must be a byproduct of mechanisms that evolved for some alternative function. But which one? Race is not encoded as a byproduct of domain-general perceptual processes. Two families of byproduct hypotheses remain: one invokes inferential machinery designed for tracking coalitional alliances, the other machinery designed for reasoning about natural kinds. Recent experiments show that manipulating coalitional variables can dramatically decrease the extent to which race is noticed and remembered.