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Tuesday
Jan272009

Facial Recognition Training To Prevent Racial Bias?


Researchers from Brown University and the University of Victoria recently completed a study that suggests training people to recognize different facial features of individuals of a different race may reduce racial biases displayed unconsciously.

The landmark study involved 20 Caucasian participants, all of which were shown a series of black and white pictures of African-American faces in what was called an 'implicit association test.' Following each photo was either nonsense or a real word, of which the real ones had either a positive or negative connotation. The individuals responded immediately whether the word was real or nonsensical.

Initially, participants responded more quickly when a negative word followed the image and more slowly if the word was positive. However, in the same tests following 10 hours of training in which the first half learned how to distinguish among African-American faces and the other half learned to identify simply whether the faces were African American or not, individuals in the first group showed an increase in positive associations with the pictures and a decrease in negative ones.

"As soon as you can tell those people apart better and you can really tell that they're different individuals, then you'd be less likely to make an automatic generalization," said Michael Tarr, a professor of brain and cognitive science at Brown University.

Previous studies in this area have confirmed this 'learned aspect' and show that it is less difficult for participants to distinguish between faces of people in the same racial group in which they were raised. In fact, one project suggested that African-American children raised by white adoptive parents were more easily able to differentiate between white faces than black ones.

Although limited in scope, researchers would like to think this idea of recognition training could potentially be universally successful and signal a possible end to racial bias. Researchers are optimistic that these results could have implications in the real world, particularly for police officers, social workers and immigration officials looking to improve their differentiation of members of a racial group other than their own.

"The idea is this that this sort of perceptual training gives you a new tool to address the kinds of biases people show unconsciously and may not even be aware they have," said Tarr.

In fact, co-author Jim Tanaka believes the Obama administration taking office might be a perfect real world example of this study in action, which was actually released the day Obama was inaugurated.

He thinks that for the small segment of Caucasian folks with little interaction with those of African-American ethnicity, the tight media coverage of the First Family and the president's network will allow them to learn the features that make each person's face distinct and allow them to adapt this knowledge to the general population.

"I think clearly anytime you have positive examples to help break stereotypes is good," Tarr said. "President Obama does that."

While studies show that humans (and bees!) are born with innate, complex abilities to determine facial recognition, harnessing these skills to more precisely process features looks to be a developed talent. I'm thrilled to see the advances we're making in the research field and excited to see how they play out going forward. Perhaps seeing "Facial Recognition Training 101" in orientation programs for various public-facing career fields is not such a bizarre thought after all.

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