Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Looking like a Criminal: Stereotypical Black Facial Features Promote Face Source Memory Error

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Looking like a Criminal: Stereotypical Black Facial Features Promote Face Source Memory Error

Article excerpt

Published online: 7 July 2012

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2012

Abstract The present studies tested whether African American face type (stereotypical or nonstereotypical) facilitated stereotype-consistent categorization, and whether that categorization influenced memory accuracy and errors. Previous studies have shown that stereotypically Black features are associated with crime and violence (e.g., Blair, Judd, & Chapleau Psychological Science 15:674-679, 2004; Blair, Judd, & Fallman Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 87:763-778, 2004; Blair, Judd, Sadler, & Jenkins Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 83:5-252002); here, we extended this finding to investigate whether there is a bias toward remembering and recategorizing stereotypical faces as criminals. Using category labels, consistent (or inconsistent) with race-based expectations, we tested whether face recognition and recategorization were driven by the similarity between a target's facial features and a stereotyped category (i.e., stereotypical Black faces associated with crime/violence). The results revealed that stereotypical faces were associated more often with a stereotype-consistent label (Study 1), were remembered and correctly recategorized as criminals (Studies 2-4), and were miscategorized as criminals when memory failed. These effects occurred regardless of race or gender. Together, these findings suggest that face types have strong category associations that can promote stereotype-motivated recognition errors. Implications for eyewitness accuracy are discussed.

Keywords Social cognition . Categorization . Memory . Stereotype . Face processing

Eyewitness memory error is the most frequent cause of wrongful convictions for prisoners who are later exonerated through DNA testing. False identifications are referenced in over 75 % of these cases, with Black men receiving the majority of these convictions (The Innocence Project, 2008; Wells et al., 1998). Myriad studies have tested the factors that influence recognition error from a police procedural standpoint, indicating that errors are facilitated via lineup construction (Wells, 2008), other witnesses' suggestions (Clark & Wells, 2008), and verbal face descriptions (i.e., verbal overshadowing; Schooler & Engstler-Schooler; 1990), to name a few of these factors. Beyond police procedures, less vigorously tested have been the decision processes that underpin false identifications of Black men, who represent the largest ethnic group affected by identification errors. Although misidentifications of Black men have been linked to the cross-race effect (CRE), whereby people are better able to identify persons of their own than of other races (Meissner, Brigham, & Butz, 2005), other previous studies have suggested that these errors may not be constrained by ingroup/ out-group differences. Rather, face identification may be influenced by facial categorization that is driven by ethnic stereotypes associated with certain face types. Specifically, Black men are categorized into subgroups on the basis of the degree to which they possess stereotypically Black features (i.e., some combination of darker skin, wider nose, and fuller lips; Blair, Judd, & Chapleau, 2004; Blair, Judd, Sadler, & Jenkins, 2002; Eberhardt, Goff, Purdie, & Davies, 2004). Although people are explicitly unaware of this subgrouping, these racial markers facilitate implicit face categorization, which then influences how the face is perceived and remembered (MacLin & Malpass, 2001; Michel, Corneille, & Rossion, 2010).

Black men retaining these stereotypical facial features are considered to represent the perception of a "prototypical" Black male. Relative to Black men with less stereotypical Black facial features (hereafter called "atypical Black features"), stereotypical facial features have been shown to activate automatic associations with negative behavioral stereotypes of Black men, such as aggression, violence, and criminality (Eberhardt et al. …

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