Looking for My Mother’s Face

People Think the ‘Typical’ Member of a Group Looks Like Them

ScienceDaily (Sep. 2, 2011) — What does a typical European face look like according to Europeans? It all depends on which European you ask. Germans think the typical European looks more German; Portuguese people think the typical European looks more Portuguese. That’s the conclusion of a new study which will be published in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. The results shed light on how people think about groups they belong to.

Other studies have found that, when people choose typical characteristics for a group they’re in, they’ll pick characteristics more like themselves. But that research was done using words. Roland Imhoff and Rainer Banse of the University of Bonn, Ron Dotsch and Daniël H.J. Wigboldus of Radboud University Nijmegen, and Mauro Bianchi of the University Institute of Lisbon chose to take a different approach: pictures.

The researchers recruited two sets of participants, in Germany and Portugal. Each person sat in front of a computer for about 20 minutes looking at pairs of pictures — 770 pairs in all. Every picture was based on the same composite photograph of a man, but each had been computer-manipulated in a different way to introduce noise, distorting the picture and the man’s features.

Each time, the participant was supposed to pick the picture they thought looked more European. The researchers averaged the pictures that were chosen in each group to come up with one average picture for the Portuguese group and one for the German group.

The average picture created from the Portuguese participants’ opinions looks darker, with wider-set eyes. The face created by the Germans has lighter hair and looks more German. The researchers had other people rate the two pictures and found that these observations held up — Germans had come up with a “typical European” face that looked more German, while Portuguese people thought of the “typical European” as more Portuguese-looking.

It may also be that this is just a sort of a mental shortcut people use to think of an abstract concept, like “European” or “America,” Imhoff says. It may also be that people are expressing a kind of subtle belief that they think their group is better than others. “It has been claimed that I can elevate my own group by claiming it’s particularly typical,” Imhoff says.

This could have implications for racial profiling. For example, if a white police officer thinks of “British” as someone who is white like him, he may be more suspicious of someone who doesn’t look like that. Much more research is needed to find out if that’s true, Imhoff says.

The above story is reprinted (with editorial adaptations by ScienceDaily staff) from materials provided by Association for Psychological Science, via EurekAlert!, a service of AAAS.
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About carlos

I'm a curious person, of reasonable intellect, "on the beach" (retired) and enjoying my interest in anthropology, language, civil rights, and a few other areas. I've been a hippie/student/aerospace tech writer in the '60s, a witness to the Portuguese revolution in the ‘70s, a defense test engineer and witness to the Guatemalan genocide in the '80s, and a network engineer for an ISP in the '90s. Now I’m a student and commentator until my time is up. I've spent time under the spell of the Mesoamerican pyramids and the sweet sound of the Portuguese language. I've lived in Europe, traveled in Brazil, Central America, Iceland, New Zealand, and other places. My preferred mode of travel is with a backpack and I eat (almost) anything local. Somehow, many of the countries I have been to have had civil unrest (for which I was not responsible). I'm open to correspond with anyone who might share my liberal, humanist interests. I live in San Buenaventura, California.
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2 Responses to Looking for My Mother’s Face

  1. Good info. I reached on your website by accident, so thanks.

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