Different facial features are diagnostic for different races. Europeans look at eye shape and color, hair color and texture, the lips and chin. East asians don't register eyes or hair, which don't change much from person to person. Instead, they look at the bridge of the nose, the cheeks, and the relative arrangement of features. Africans pay more attention to shapes, and to more shapes than other races do -- not just individual shapes of features like the eyebrows, the chin, the ears, nose, and nostrils, but also the outline of the face itself.

Let me reiterate that I’m generalizing wildly here.

And I’m basing this on what research I’ve been able to dig up identifying specifically what we’re all looking for — which isn’t nearly as voluminous as the research confirming that we seem to be looking at different things. If I’ve got any of this wrong, or if you have your own observations or sources, feel free to let me know in the comments!

Also, it’s not that we don’t share any of the same diagnostic features with each other — it’s just that we don’t share all of them. Which will become important for another reason on the next page.

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Join the conversation! There are now 17 comments on this chapter's page 47. Cross-Race Identification. What are your thoughts?
  1. I’m better at faces than I used to be, but I still rely heavily on things such as body shape.

    I like tattoos because they allow me to “cheat”.

    Jewelry can also help you cheat. It is *much* easier to remember “she wears an old-fashioned men’s wristwatch” or “her necklace has 23 blue charms” than to try to remember a face. After all, how do you describe a face in just a few words?

    • You’re not alone. Especially in stranger-ID cases, the clothing is often much more distinctive to our brains than the face — a problem only compounded by cross-race ID scenarios. Even police descriptions of suspects tend to focus on their clothes, rather than what their face looks like. When you add in the fact that a mode of dress can practically be considered a uniform for any given group, and you’ve got a heck of a lot of innocent people who could get picked out of a lineup.

      The flip side is this: if you’re being pursued and don’t want to be recognized, there’s little point in changing your facial appearance. False mustaches, wigs, and sunglasses are for the movies. To shake a tail, change your silhouette — put on a hat, or take one off. If you can, change your outer clothing to a different shape or color. Clench your toes or do something similar to alter your gait. And just act normal. (I never told you this, by the way.) (And a pro will check your shoes — swap ’em out first chance you get.)

  2. Jeff H says


    Nothing in this strip “begs the question”. You mean something like “raises the question”.

    Begging the question is a specific informal logical fallacy. It’s probably easiest to think of it as the same thing as “circular reasoning” though there are fine distinctions some people make between the two. Basically, for an argument to beg the question is for it to rely on a premise that only people who already agree with its conclusion are likely to consider plausible. (Simple, arguably oversimplified, example: “God exists because the Bible says so”).

    • The most common meaning of the phrase has changed, getting its start thanks in part to that awkward translation of “petitio principii”, though the original meaning is also still used. This kind of change is not uncommon in language.

    • My usage here isn’t so much “raising the question” as it is “failing to answer it.” More on the tautological side of circular reasoning than the formal usage would be, but it is nevertheless a commonly-used colloquial usage.

      As a stickler myself, I feel your pain. But whether we should let formal usage trump comprehension is a whole nother question.

    • This is really weird. Chrome automatically translated your “AAARGH!” to “Bitch!” I don’t know why it would translate it like that, or why it thought I needed it to do an “English to English” translation.

  3. I find myself wondering about those who grew up in a mixed race family. If the mother is, say, African and the father is Asian, or pretty much any combination of ancestry, how might that affect ones facial perception? I’m also wondering which features would be important to someone of Native American ancestry.
    This, of course, leads to the question of how to test personal perception, and whether someone of mixed heritage could be better at identifying strangers than those of a, so called, pure race.
    Much to think about. For the right person there could be a research grant involved.

  4. Nathan, I think you decided on Doodles’ looks because “gingers” tend to be so distinctive; I suspect the hair color tends to override facial appearance.

  5. Kereth Midknight says

    Huh. I was under the impression that it was largely a case of focusing on differences. I.e. if you are used to seeing faces that look a certain way, then encounter a face with one or more features that you’re not used to seeing (be it skin tone or even a scar or unusual beard), you remember those features exclusively as the means to identify the face at the expense of all others. This becomes mostly a problem with common phenotypes, as someone who is used to mostly seeing a phenotype associated with a particular region will initially remember people with another phenotype only by the features that define their phenotype more generally, rather than those which might be better suited to distinguish them from others of the same phenotype.

    I’m not really clear how the explanation you give would actually explain the problem. Even if one focused exclusively on the bridge of the nose and cheek bones, despite some prevailing misconceptions, most people of non-asian phenotype won’t be identical in that area, so you wouldn’t really have trouble identifying people based on that. You’d only have trouble if your brain was simply recording a detail that was not unique to them, wouldn’t you?

  6. Andrew M. Farrell says

    Can you post links to or names of the papers you’re referring to? I want to see if I can re-create this with neural nets in the style of google’s deep dream.

  7. Gabriel Russell says

    Does this apply based on race or the culture you were raised in?
    How wold this apply to…
    A black person raised in China?
    An Asian person raised in a white household?
    Someone of multiple races?

    • It would be based on the races you saw most often. So your first two examples would be better at recognizing faces of the race they were raised in, and for someone of multiple races, it would depend on their community and how diverse the faces they saw growing up were.

  8. Nathan, I just noticed that your highlighting is near-invisible in gray-scale; the east-Asian stands out the most, while Doodle looking at anyone or the Asian girl looking at Asian guy don’t show any markings. You might want to see if you can make it a bit clearer for those with various visual issues.

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