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"They all look the same to me" Cognitive Biases in Cross-Race Re-identification and Discrimination

Michele Belot
University of Oxford, UK

This study provides a first set of experimental results highlighting a new mechanism for racial discrimination, based on a cognitive limitation in facial re-identification across races. Specifically, I study the joint recall of faces and payoff-relevant information and show that recall is less efficient across races than within race and results in racial discrimination. East-Asian and White subjects see an equal number of pictures of East-Asian and White faces and each face is mapped to a payoff-relevant value. Incentives are provided to recall faces associated with higher values. We observe a clear asymmetry in the accuracy of recall: High value faces are more accurately recalled within race than across races. These inaccuracies lead to negative racial discrimination at the top of the value distribution and positive discrimination at the bottom. On the other hand, I also show that if race is a scarce attribute - if there is only a small number of pictures of East-Asians, race serves as an obvious marker of identity and re-identification is substantially improved. These results raise new questions on the implications of such cognitive biases for the nature of cross-racial relations, in particular for phenomena relying on reidentification, such as the formation and maintenance of social ties, the establishment of trust and the sustainability of cooperation.

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