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How perceptions of identity can lead to incorrect assumptions about ability & behaviour

These assumptions may be made based on someone’s race or ethnicity, which are complex categories that can have deeply personal meanings

Perceptions of other people’s identities can lead to incorrect assumptions about their ability, character or behaviour. These assumptions may be made based on someone’s race or ethnicity, which are complex categories that can have deeply personal meanings.

Annie Easley developed code for energy-conversion systems that were later used in the NASA space programme. She was one of a wider group of under-recognised black female scientists who pioneered the field of aeronautics during a time of segregation, in the face of perceptions that they would not be capable of this kind of work (1).

Automatically ‘encoding’ race, gender and age

Now let’s consider a different kind of perception. In a 2001 study, a team of evolutionary psychologists challenged claims that people automatically ‘encode’ the race, sex and age of every person they encounter. This means we might recall that a person is young, white and male, without remembering anything else about them. Their hypothesis was that race encoding matters because ‘categorising others by their race is a precondition for treating them differently according to race’ (2).

In their experiment, participants had to remember a series of pictures of African American or Euro American people who wore either yellow or grey basketball shirts. The pictures were presented alongside statements indicating which team they were in. Without the shirts, participants automatically categorised the individuals by their race, but with the coloured shirts, this didn’t happen: ‘people’s errors revealed that team membership had become the dominant category, not the race of the players.’

Having created a situation in which categorisation by race was less important than categorisation by which team people were on, the researchers inferred that ‘race is only important when it might indicate coalitional information — that is, whose team you are on. In situations where race isn’t correlated with coalition, it ceases to be important’. (3)


  1. Emine Saner, 2016. How history forgot the black women behind Nasa’s space race, Guardian.
  2. Robert Kurzban, John Tooby, and Leda Cosmides, 2001. Can race be erased? Coalitional computation and social categorization, Center for Evolutionary Psychology, University of California.
  3. Tom Stafford, 2013. Is race perception automatic?, BBC Future.
© Creative Computing Institute
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