Academic journal article Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

I Know Your Face but Not Where I Saw You: Context Memory Is Impaired for Other-Race Faces

Academic journal article Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

I Know Your Face but Not Where I Saw You: Context Memory Is Impaired for Other-Race Faces

Article excerpt

People are more likely to falsely identify a face of another race than a face of their own race. When witnesses make identifications, they often need to remember where they have previously encountered a face. Failure to remember the context of an encounter can result in unconscious transference and lead to misidentifications. Forty-five White participants were shown White and Black faces, each presented on one of five backgrounds. The participants had to identify these faces in an old/new recognition test. If participants stated that they had seen a face, they had to identify the context in which the face had originally appeared. Participants made more context errors with Black faces than with White faces. This shows that the own-race bias extends to context memory.

Cross-race face recognition has been studied systematically for almost four decades, since Malpass and Kravitz (1969) found that White and Black university students showed superior recognition accuracy for faces of their own race in comparison with faces of the other race. This effect, termed the own-race bias (ORB), has been replicated across several races and experimental paradigms (Ferguson, Rhodes, Lee, & Sriram, 2001; Wright, Boyd, & Tredoux, 2003). For reviews, see Bothwell, Brigham, and Malpass (1989), Meissner and Brigham (2001), and Sporer (2001).

When making identification decisions, participants can be correct in one of two ways. If participants say that they have seen a target before, this is a hit. If participants say that they have not seen a foil before, this is a correct rejection. Similarly, identification decisions can be incorrect in one of two ways. If participants decide that they have not seen a target, this is a miss. Finally, if participants decide that they have seen a foil before, this is a false alarm.

Research has shown that the ORB can be caused by both increased hit rates for own-race faces compared with other-race faces and with inflated false alarm rates for other-race faces compared with own-race faces (Meissner & Brigham, 2001). However, some studies have shown that the ORB is more pronounced for false alarm rates than for hit rates (Slone, Brigham, & Meissner, 2000). In other words, participants are more likely to wrongly identify a foil of another race as having been seen before than a foil of their own race. The real-world implications of this in terms of eyewitness memory are alarming, because a false alarm within the legal system can ultimately lead to the wrongful conviction of an innocent person (Doyle, 2001).

When making an identification, witnesses must not only remember whether they have ever seen a specific individual, but also in what circumstance they encountered that individual. For example, did they see the person at the crime scene or the day before in some unrelated context? Or perhaps the person was an innocent bystander to the crime. The cognitive process involved in making such decisions is known as source monitoring, and failures in this process can lead to unconscious transference (see Lindsay, 2007, for a review). This is when a witness mistakes a familiar person from another time or place for the culprit (Read, Tollestrup, Hammersley, McFazden, & Christensen, 1990).

Source memory has been shown to be much less accurate than face recognition accuracy (Brown, Deffenbacher, & Sturgill, 1977). For example, participants may be unable to accurately remember whether a target individual was an assailant or a bystander at a crime (Read et al., 1990; Ross, Ceci, Dunning, & Toglia, 1994), or may be unable to recall whether an individual was seen at a crime scene or later, in a photo array (Deffenbacher, Bornstein, & Penrod, 2006; Dysart, Lindsay, Hammond, & Dupuis, 2001).

The Innocence Project ( includes real-world cases where unconscious transference has led to the incarceration of innocent men. For example, in 1989, African-American Larry Bostic was convicted of sexual battery and assault in Florida. …

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