By varying the racial makeup of par- ticipants and target persons in laboratory and real-life interactions, researchers discovered that people are more accurate at recognizing members of their own racial group than of a race other than their own—an effect known as the cross- race identification bias.
In one field study, for example, 86 convenience store clerks in El Paso, Texas, were asked to identify three customers—one white, one African American, and one Mexican American—all experimental confederates who had stopped in and made a purchase earlier that day. It turned out that the white, black, and Mexican American clerks were all most likely to accurately identify customers belonging to their own racial or ethnic group.
The finding that “they all look alike” (referring to members of other groups) is found reliably and in many different racial and ethnic groups. Christian Meissner and John Brigham (2001) statistically combined the results of 39 studies involving a total of 5,000 mock witnesses. They found that the witnesses were consistently less accurate and more prone to making false identifications when they tried to rec- ognize target persons from racial and ethnic groups other than their own. Sadly, the cross-race bias is not a mere laboratory phenomenon. Numerous real-world cases have been discovered in which eyewitnesses misidentified innocent suspects who were of a race other than their own. Paralleling this research, studies also show that children, young adults, and the elderly have more difficulty recognizing others of an age group other than their own.