NCBI research on racial recognition, familiarity and preferences. October 2008.
Abstract : Adults are sensitive to the physical differences that define ethnic groups. However, the age at which we become sensitive to ethnic differences is currently unclear. Our study aimed to clarify this by testing newborns and young infants for sensitivity to ethnicity using a visual preference (VP) paradigm. While newborn infants demonstrated no spontaneous preference for faces from either their own- or other-ethnic groups, 3-month-old infants demonstrated a significant preference for faces from their own-ethnic group. These results suggest that preferential selectivity based on ethnic differences is not present in the first days of life, but is learned within the first 3 months of life. The findings imply that adults’ perceptions of ethnic differences are learned and derived from differences in exposure to own- versus other-race faces during early development.
Introduction : Historically, the perception of human races has had major ramifications for the social and economic livelihoods of people throughout the world. Adults very rapidly make judgements and categorize people according to ethnicity (Levin, 2000; Valentine & Endo, 1992). It is likely that both skin color and physiognomic differences are used to make such judgements. Hirschfeld (1998) suggests that sensitivity to ethnicity is more than knowledge concerning observable, physical differences and instead is a specialized cognitive strategy for reasoning about human collectives. However, while the origins of ethnic categorization must originate from some form of sensitivity to ethnic differences, exactly when and how such knowledge develops is unclear.
In the first few days of life, newborn infants demonstrate a visual preference for faces (Fantz, 1963; Goren, Sarty & Wu, 1975; Johnson, Dziurawiec, Ellis & Morton, 1991; Maurer & Young, 1983; Valenza, Simion, Macchi Cassia & Umiltà, 1996; but see Easterbrook, Kisilevsky, Hains & Muir, 1999), a preference for their mother’s face over a stranger’s face (Bushnell, Sai & Mullin, 1989; Field, Cohen, Garcia & Greenburg, 1984; Pascalis, de Schonen, Morton, Deruelle & Fabre-Grenet, 1995) and the ability to discriminate between faces from their own-ethnic group (Pascalis & de Schonen, 1994). Also, newborns demonstrate a preference for attractive over unattractive faces (Slater, von der Schulenburg, Brown, Badenoch, Butterworth, Parsons & Samuels, 1998) and use information from internal facial features when making this preference (Slater, Bremner, Johnson, Sherwood, Hayes & Brown, 2000). Furthermore, newborns will imitate an array of facial gestures performed by an adult (Meltzoff & Moore, 1977). Collectively, these findings suggest that newborns very rapidly form a face representation, are sensitive to subtle physiognomic variations, attend to internal facial features and learn from faces in their visual environment.
There is mounting evidence in support of the proposal that the face processing system is shaped by the faces seen in the visual environment (de Schonen & Mathivet, 1989; Morton & Johnson, 1991; Nelson, 2001). Experiential effects on face processing have thus far been reported for the attributes of gender, race and species. With respect to gender, at 3 months of age, infants raised primarily by a female caregiver demonstrate a preference for female faces over male faces and are better able to discriminate among female faces than among male faces. Conversely, infants raised primarily by a male caregiver demonstrate a preference for male faces over female faces (Quinn, Yahr, Kuhn, Slater & Pascalis, 2002).
For the attribute of race, Sangrigoli and de Schonen (2004) have recently demonstrated that at 3 months of age Caucasian infants are able to discriminate between own-race faces, but not other-race faces. This discrimination bias may represent an early manifestation of a similar deficit seen in adults, which is typically called the other-race effect (ORE; Meissner & Brigham, 2001). However, the effect present in infants appears to have greater plasticity than the effect reported in adults. In a follow-up experiment from Sangrigoli and de Schonen (2004), when infants were familiarized with three individual faces, as opposed to one in the first experiment, they were able to demonstrate recognition with both ownand other-race faces. This latter result suggests that with only limited experiences with faces from another race, abilities to discriminate within own- and other-race face categories can be rendered equivalent.