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Why we have difficulty recognising people who look different

Why we have difficulty recognising people who don’t look like us

When Professor Will Hayward, now Head of the School of Psychology at the University of Auckland, moved to Hong Kong in the late 1990s he loved the city and all its excitement but found one thing very hard to get used to.

“It sounds un-PC but I had great difficulty telling my Chinese students apart from one another,” he says. “I would often mistake one student for another.”

Appointed Head of Psychology at the University of Hong Kong, Professor Hayward felt anxious about being unable to readily identify his students by name until he started talking to the students. They totally understood.

“They couldn’t figure out why I had trouble with them; they said all white people looked identical to each other.”

As a researcher in visual perception, he found this intriguing and it led to development of a research programme on face identification for people of different ethnicities.

The science of face perception is the topic of Professor Hayward’s inaugural lecture, the Psychology of Seeing.

“For most of us, seeing is effortless. We open our eyes, and the world is instantly available to us. But the ease of the process belies its complexity, and we are only just beginning to understand how the brain creates our visual sense of the world.”

Professor Hayward says the problem with faces is that we develop expertise for the precise differences between them but if those faces are from one ethnicity, then we become overspecialised. This is particularly noticeable when travelling to countries where the culture is unfamiliar.

“The key thing is that these new people aren’t actually more similar to each other than the ones we are used to, but our visual system doesn’t know what to pay attention to,” he says.

“Spending time in the new location definitely gives you more expertise at face identication, but it does require active practice.”

Professor Hayward’s lecture gives an overview of the field of visual perception, which combines experimental psychology and cognitive neuroscience. He will illustrate how the eyes are only the beginning of the visual system, and that major parts of the brain are devoted to interpreting visual information.
Professor Hayward was educated in Christchurch and studied at the University of Canterbury before gaining his PhD from Yale University. He led the Department of Psychology at the University of Hong Kong before taking up his current role.

The lecture will be held on Level 0 of the Owen G Glen Building in Lecture Theatre OGGB3 from 6pm to 7pm. All welcome to this free lecture. Refreshments at Excel Cafe, OGGB Level 1 from 5pm.


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