They All Look The Same To Me! Countering The Own-Race Bias

Do you find it harder to recognise people of different races to your own? Have you ever used the phrase “They all look the same to me!” If so, you’re not alone; it’s a documented phenomenon called the “own-race bias”. Why it happens isn’t completely clear, but some evidence indicates that own-race faces are perceived more holistically than other races.

Johnson and Fredrickson (2005) wondered, if that was true, would positive emotions reduce the own-race bias? Fredrickson’s broaden-and-build model proposes that so-called positive emotions (happiness, joy etc. – ones that are pleasant to experience) can broaden our thought-action repertoire, and in the case of visual perception, cause us to perceive things more globally. So maybe positive emotions would cause more holistic face processing, and therefore reduce the own-race bias.

They set up two tests to figure this out, which were both broken into the same 4 stages:

First, participants were split randomly into 3 groups, and each group watched a different video (see below).

Participants then saw a series of faces, 28 faces divided equally between gender and race (half black and half white people). Presumably this was on a computer.

Next, they watched a different video.

Finally, they took a face recognition test. Another 28 faces, also with an even gender and race split, were added to the 28 used previously. The faces were shown in a random order, and participants has to report whether each face had been part of the previous set.

The videos in steps 1 and 3 were used to either elicit the emotional responses of joy (with a comedy video), fear (with a horror movie clip), or no emotion (neutral videos – a woodworking video and a video of ordinary objects). Self-report measures were also given as a way of checking the videos had the desired effect.

I mentioned this test was done twice. The difference between the two experiments was the timing of the emotion-inducing video – it was shown either in the first step, or the third. This was to test the effect of the emotions on the encoding and retrieval memory processes.
If the positive emotion provided by the comedy video did reduce the own-race bias, a greater recognition should have been found in those groups compared to the fear and neutral groups – and that’s what the results showed, in both experiments.

The comedy group showed no difference between races in facial recognition, while the neutral and fear groups did. Furthermore, this was caused by poor recognition of black faces in the neutral and fear groups, as opposed to poor recognition of white faces in the comedy group (these are results averaged over the two tests):

This seems to support the idea that positive emotions reduce – or eliminate even – the own-race bias in facial recognition. However it doesn’t necessarily demonstrate that broaden-and-build is at work here, because an alternative explanation noted by the authors is more inclusive categorisation – we tend to categorise faces by race before anything else, and perhaps positive emotions reduce this effect by promoting more inclusive categorisations.

It’s interesting that inducing joy improved recognition, even when induced before the first set of faces – the effect of positive emotions on facial processing seems to apply to faces that have already been learned. The authors speculate that this might lead to use in eye-witness testimony.

Of course, a comedy video is a narrow definition of ‘positive emotion’, so it’s unclear whether the results of this test would generalise to other pleasant states, such as gratitude for instance. Plus, the sample sizes in the groups were fairly small (14-20). But, it’s consistent with the broaden-and-build theory.

So now you know what to do if you’re having trouble recognising people of a different race – put some comedy videos on! (I suggest Bill Hicks).


Johnson, K. J.,&Fredrickson, B. L. (2005). “We all look the same to me”: Positive emotions eliminate the own-race bias in face recognition. Psychological Science, 16, 875-881.

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