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Like attracts like? Research reveals sex bias in our ability to remember faces

* 5 November 2003 *

Like attracts like? Research reveals sex bias in our ability to remember faces

People are more likely to remember faces of their own race, age group or gender than those of others, according to research at the University of Sussex.

Cognitive psychologist Dr Dan Wright found that men and women are less likely to accurately or correctly recall faces of the opposite sex, which supports previous findings of own-race bias in recognising faces. The findings could soon influence the use of eyewitness testimony in court and identity parade procedures.

Why such bias exists is still open to question, says Dr Wright. "There is a contact hypothesis, that we remember the faces we associate with the most, and people tend to mix more with those of their own race or age, but it's not the whole story. It could be that really we just remember people who look like us the most, as we're used to seeing our own faces the most."

Tests also showed that hair, rather than facial features, was a critical factor in identifying faces seen only briefly beforehand - both men and women were more able to recall and identify faces of their own gender, as long as the hair wasn't covered. Theories as to why facial recognition isn't so accurate across the sexual divide include the evolutionary idea that we are more likely to remember the faces of those with whom we are competing for mates.

The legal implications of the findings relate to the recent use of DNA evidence to quash wrongful convictions. In America, it was discovered that a large number of wrongful convictions had been based primarily on evidence from witnesses who had "misremembered" facial characteristics.

The research may therefore account for why people who are convinced they have correctly identified the culprit in a crime make mistakes, and why innocent people are convicted.

"Juries place a lot of importance on eyewitness accounts," says Dr Wright. "You'll often hear a witness insist that they remember something clearly, when in fact their recollection isn't accurate at all." This seemed most apparent in cases where identification evidence involved racial differences between witness and suspect. Dr Wright added, "There is now enough research into own-race bias to allow for expert testimony on eyewitness accounts."

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