A face by any other name

If Barack Obama had taken his mother's surname and kept his childhood nickname, American voters might literally see "Barry Dunham" as a quite different presidential candidate, according to a new study on racial perception.

Barack Obama inside

If Barack Obama had taken his mother's surname and kept his childhood nickname, American voters might literally see "Barry Dunham" as a quite different presidential candidate, a new UNSW study suggests.

A name significantly changes our perception of someone's face and race, according to research in the journal, Perception.

Participants in the study - titled Barack Obama or Barry Dunham? - rated multi-racial faces with European names as looking significantly "more European" than exactly the same multi-racial faces when given Asian names.

Earlier research had established that people tend to be better and more accurate at recognising faces of their own race than those of a different race, an effect called the own-race bias: colloquially, the feeling that people of a different race "all look the same to me".

This bias has far-reaching negative effects, most notably the observation that eyewitnesses to crimes are more likely to incorrectly identify a perpetrator of a different race. By gaining a better understanding of the mechanisms driving the bias, researchers are hoping to devise strategies to minimise its effects.

The study by researchers at the UNSW School of Psychology aimed to test the hypothesis that the presence of racially-suggestive names would influence participants' perception of identical multi-racial faces, resulting in multi-racial faces being judged to look more like the racial group suggested by their name.

In the experiment, 64 participants were asked to rate the appearance of Asian-Australian faces given typically Asian names, European-Australian faces given typically European names, multi-racial faces given Asian names, and multi-racial faces given European names. The participants comprised 32 Asian-Australian students and 32 European-Australian students.

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Media Contact: Dan Gaffney | 0411 156 015 | d.gaffney@unsw.edu.au