I have a Chinese friend and she says that she has a much harder time guessing Western people's ages than Eastern people's ages. No particular surprise here. For me it's the opposite. I have the feeling that Eastern people look younger longer and then "suddenly" look older.

To have a comparison, I wonder if there is a study on "Western people guessing Western people's ages" vs. "Eastern people guessing Eastern people's ages".

  • $\begingroup$ @Steven Jeuris: Thanks for the edit, although regarding the title, I wrote "peoples" on purpose. I heard academic linguists use it as greeting (as in "Good day, peoples!") and then at one point I actually checked for its meaning. See http://english.stackexchange.com/questions/2444/people-or-peoples-when-referring-to-an-indigenous-population $\endgroup$
    – Nikolaj-K
    Oct 16, 2012 at 8:59
  • $\begingroup$ Not too sure about that. However, you do need to use a possessive form, so then it would become "peoples's ages". :) Or you could say "the age of western peoples", but then it just gets confusing whether you are referring to the age of the group of people, or just the people in those groups. Personally I prefer my edit, but of course you are always free to edit the question again. ;p $\endgroup$
    – Steven Jeuris
    Oct 16, 2012 at 9:24

2 Answers 2


Cross-race effect in facial processing

As @analystic has noted, there is substantial research documenting what is sometimes called the "cross-race effect":

Cross-race effect (sometimes called cross-race bias, other-race bias or own-race bias) is the tendency for people of one race to have difficulty recognizing and processing faces and facial expressions of members of a race or ethnic group other than their own.

For an overview of research see the meta-analysis by Meissner and Brigham (2001). To quote parts of the abstract:

Data were analyzed from 39 research articles, involving 91 independent samples and nearly 5,000 participants. Measures of hit and false alarm rates, and aggregate measures of discrimination accuracy and response criterion were examined, including an analysis of 8 study moderators. ... Overall, results indicated a "mirror effect" pattern in which own-race faces yielded a higher proportion of hits and a lower proportion of false alarms compared with other-race faces.

Note that the effect is probably related to degree of interaction with the racial group. Thus, it is not so much a fixed genetic difference, but rather that in many societies we tend to interact more with our own racial group.

It would not be surprising if part of the cross-race effect would be reflected in poorer performance in rating the age of people from a different race relative to one's own race.

General skill in estimating ages

You can find a nice review of the age estimation literature in Rhodes (2009). The author suggests that a general in group bias may exist in skill in age estimation. I.e., that prediction is not just better for the same race but also for people of similar age.

Taken together, data on group biases in age estimation must be regarded as suggestive that in-group age estimation is superior to that of out-group age estimation. This may include more accurate age estimates for individuals of one’s own ethnicity or age group (but see Burt & Perrett, 1995). However, given the dearth of data, the full range and impact of group biases on age estimation has yet to be explored.

Estimating ages of own versus other race

I also found a specific study by Dehon and Bredart (2001) which specifically looked at accuracy in cross-racial age estimation.

Citing the abstract:

In the present study, we investigated whether this finding extends to age perception. Caucasian and African participants were asked to estimate the age of Caucasian and African faces. The main result of this experiment was a significant race of 'subject $\times$ race of face' interaction showing that Caucasian participants performed better at evaluating Caucasian faces than African faces. However, African participants performed equally with both type of faces. This result is explained by the Africans' time of residence in Belgium

They used 72 Caucasian and 72 African photographs as stimuli. Actual ages of faces ranged between 20 and 45 years. In terms of absolute deviation in years between actual age and estimated age, thy found that:

Caucasian participants were better at estimating the age of Caucasian faces (mean = 6.35 years, SD=3.13 years) than African faces (mean= 7.79 years, SD= 2.96 years) whereas the performance of African participants did not differ with the kind of face (mean =6.98 years, SD =3.25 years and mean = 6.79 years, SD= 2.86 years for Caucasian and African faces, respectively).

Note of course that these differences in age accuracy are not that large.


  • Dehon, H. & Bredart, S. (2001). An 'other-race' effect in age estimation from faces. Perception, 30, 1107-1114.
  • Meissner, C.A. & Brigham, J.C. (2001). Thirty years of investigating the own-race bias in memory for faces: A meta-analytic review.. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 7, 3. PDF
  • Rhodes, M.G. (2009). Age estimation of faces: A review. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 23, 1-12.

This is probably an example of the "cross-race effect", in which people of one ethnic group (you're talking ethnicity, not culture here) have trouble distinguishing between members of another ethnic group.

It comes down to familiarity basically - if we are more familiar with the features of a white face (for example) then we'll be able to notice minor variations on similar features more easily. In all likelihood, this carries over into judging ages, as minor changes (a few wrinkles here and there) may be missed in other groups.

Of course, there may be some top down sort of processing going on too here, which may indeed have something to do with culture. From a social psychology standpoint, it seems likely that there are signs that we pick up on (consciously or otherwise) which cue us as to the age of a person (see studies on priming for example). These cues may involve the way that others treat an individual, the way they talk, mannerisms, certain phrases etc.

These sorts of factors are likely culturally determined - for example, we might speculate that older Asian people may maintain more contact with younger generations due to social structures which encourage extended families to live together. As a result we might suggest that they may maintain more current attitudes, mannerisms and communication styles for longer, until cognitive decline eventually catches up with them. While all of that is highly speculative, it is a potential mechanism through which culture may induce the aging pattern you describe.

  • $\begingroup$ Since a google search for "other race effect" popped up an article which discusses "cross-race effect" which seems to be what you are referring to, I updated your answer as such. $\endgroup$
    – Steven Jeuris
    Oct 16, 2012 at 10:33
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Either term is commonly used - a google search reveals results for the "other race effect" as well, and there are plenty of academic references. Don't imagine it matters either way, however thanks for adding the link. $\endgroup$
    – analystic
    Oct 16, 2012 at 10:45
  • $\begingroup$ Now we have both. ;p $\endgroup$
    – Steven Jeuris
    Oct 16, 2012 at 10:54

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