WASHINGTON—In a recent episode of "The Sopranos," Tony Soprano dreamed that he'd been slapped by a Buddhist monk who mistook him for another white man who'd swindled him.
"All Caucasians look alike," explained the unapologetic monk.
They often do, it turns out, at least to people who aren't Caucasian. For that matter, blacks often look alike to whites and Hispanics to Asians. It's not that people of any one race are harder to distinguish; researchers say that individual features vary equally among races. Rather, it's that people have problems telling people from another group apart.
This so-called "cross-race effect"—something of a misnomer because the phenomenon includes ethnic, cultural and regional groups as well as racial ones—can cause trouble in an increasingly globalized world. For example:
_U.S. forces in Iraq sometimes have mistakenly admitted foreign insurgents because they couldn't tell Saudis or Egyptians from Iraqis, according to Steve Casteel, a U.S. security consultant who until recently advised Iraq's interior ministry, which handles domestic security. Iraqi police who later picked up foreign fighters would discover that the foreign insurgents had convinced U.S. screeners that they were Iraqis.
_U.S. drug agents sometimes can't tell Colombian leaders of smuggling groups from the Peruvian and Bolivian peasants who work for them, said Casteel, a vice president at Vance International, a worldwide security firm based in Oakton, Va. An agent's ignorance can be dangerous, he continued, because Colombian smugglers are more likely to be armed and violent.
_The Innocence Project, a New York nonprofit legal clinic that tracks life imprisonment convictions that are overturned by DNA evidence, found that white eyewitnesses misidentified innocent blacks 44 percent of the time. That's nearly twice as often as they misidentified innocent whites.
Misidentifications aren't due to racism, however, said Roy Malpass, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at El Paso who's published widely on the cross-race effect. "People make about 50 percent more errors," he said, whenever they're asked to remember other-race faces.
Malpass bases his estimate on experiments in which researchers asked subjects to study equal numbers of faces from their race and from a different race. After some time passed, the subjects looked at double the number of faces they'd seen before—half of them seen in the earlier trial and half introduced for the first time—and identified those they thought they'd seen before. They all did much better with their own race.
Casteel, who also worked with U.S. Iraq envoys L. Paul Bremer and John Negroponte, saw that problem in real life among U.S. screeners on the Syrian border. They'd ask admission-seekers who turned out to be foreign fighters, "`Where are you from?'" Casteel recalled, "and they'd say `Mosul,' and they'd let them in.
"An Iraqi would know they weren't from Iraq immediately," Casteel said, from their faces and from other cultural cues. "Americans, you have to give them a six-month course and even then they wouldn't get that right."
He said he encountered the same problem during a U.S. drug war stint in the Andes.
Practice and motivation—such as courting foreign business or someone of another race—can overcome the cross-race effect to a degree. "But you are much less rapid and accurate," said Scania de Schonen, a neuroscientist at the University Rene Descartes in Paris who's studied the cross-race effect in babies, adoptees and immigrants.
Humans develop their recognition skills in infancy, honing them on the faces they see most often, Schonen said, and those are mostly of their own race. Much of that skill building is done by the time they're 3, she believes; nearly all by the time they're 9.
Among her findings is that young Koreans adopted by European Caucasians, if they're adopted before age 9, identify people of their adoptive parents' race more easily than their own. Koreans who moved to France in their 20s did the opposite.
"After some years it seems that you cannot adapt anymore," Schonen said.
Malpass theorizes that the brain becomes less malleable in the area responsible for recognition and that people try to remember faces by focusing on the physical traits that vary in their own race—hair and eye color and noses among Caucasians, for example.
When those traits don't vary much in another race, such as Asians, they're stymied. Or they fix on traits that differ in other races, such as eye folds among Asians, which don't help them tell Asians apart.
"We're looking for things that distinguish them for us," said Malpass, "but not the things that distinguish them from each other."
To offset the cross-race effect, the Department of Homeland Security trains border agents to assess passport photos against the physical features of their holders in almost mechanical ways. This entails "specific identifiers that are highly accurate," such as the width of a nose's bridge, said immigration inspector Charles Showalter.
The cross-race effect also often trips up teachers, who must learn to recognize scores of new students every semester. It befuddled Dyske Suematsu when he moved from Japan to California as a teen. Once, he said, he mistook a blond teacher for one of his own and followed him to class, where Suematsu sat for a half-hour before the teacher asked, "Who are you?"
Suematsu has created a Web site on Asians, www.alllooksame.com, that explores the "they all look alike to me" stereotype and makes fun of it. Among other things, the site displays 18 faces of Asians—Chinese, Japanese and Koreans—and asks visitors to identify their nationalities.
High scorers, he's found, hail mainly from areas with many Asians, such as Korea, Taiwan, Hawaii and New York City.
For underage drinkers hoping to get past nightclub bouncers, however, the cross-race effect can be helpful, according to Monica Lee, a Chinese student at George Washington University in Washington. Any ID with an Asian face, no matter how unlike the ID holder's, works, said Lee, now 22.
"They see you with dark hair and the stereotypical Asian features and say, `Oh, that's you,'" said Lee.
To take the cross-race test and get more information, go to www.alllooksame.com
For more on eyewitness misidentifications, go to www.eyewitness.utep.edu
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): LOOKALIKE
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