Wednesday, 5 January 2011

"They all look the same."

White people all look the same.
Cows all look the same.
Chinese food all tastes the same.
Reality TV shows are all the same.
Football matches are always the same.
All X looks/tastes/sounds/smells the same

It is interesting being on the receiving end of this for a change.  Despite living in a town with a total of probably less than five white men at any given time, I am nonetheless often mistaken for somebody else.  This is a common experience for lots of the volunteers here.  Due to the complicated history of Guyana since independence, outside of the capital and a few tourist hot spots, white bais and gyals are a rare sight here.  So to many Guyanese, we all look the same.

If you hear this kind of statement from an English person talking about their two Indian colleagues you would (and probably quite rightly) think 'racist'. But nonetheless, they are telling the truth. People of a race that you are not used to seeing often do, literally, all look the same. To you. Just like to the elderly classical music fan, punk rock all sounds the same, to the beer connoisseur all red wine tastes the same, and to the city dweller all cows look the same. But to the punk, the sommelier and the farmer there is a world of difference between bands, wines or cows.

A nice aspect of travel is that you get to experience your perception of the world around you change as your mind creates new categories and relationships to make sense of your new surroundings.  I recently re-listened to one of my first Dancehall CDs, and what sounded repetitive and impenetrable on first listen is now a connected world of vocal styles, recognisable riddims and emotional associations.  One of the hardest things when you are new in the country is that you meet many, many people who all remember you, but at that point many of them, to you, look the same.  As time goes on, the differences become clearer and the categories in your mind get more detailed and finely drawn every day. The change is too gradual to notice, but dramatic when you look back to your first impressions.

A quick google tells me this is called the 'own race bias' or 'cross race effect' (the internet really is amazing - i searched for 'they all look the same psychology' and found that out in seconds). Wikipedia tells me that this effect has been studied extensively, and studies show it may be responsible for around 30% of failed negotiations between English and Chinese businesses. I am sure that the similar 'cross music/literature/taste/species' effects are responsible for all sorts of misunderstandings, distrust and dislike between different ages, classes or social groups within countries too.

So - a late new year's resolution for everyone: take the time to investigate some food, music, people, language, sport or animal that all smells, tastes, looks, sounds or feels the same to you. You might be surprised.

PS: I managed to get cognitive science, food, music, learning, wikipedia and Guyana all into one post. Jackpot!

PPS: This is an interesting and entertainingly named paper on the subject - apparently the cross-race effect disappears for angry faces. Maybe when first meeting people of a different race you should ask them nicely to pull an angry face? On second thoughts, perhaps not. You might get a real angry face. The disturbing implication of this is that we instinctively see people of a different race as an 'out group', and therefore potentially threatening.

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