Men’s ability to recognize women’s faces depends on this very interesting factor

For some men, all women look the same to them – even famous ones. But that actually depends on where they’re from, and what that country’s attitude towards woman is, according to a new study from Harvard Medical School.

What actually makes it more likely for men and women to recognize celebrities – specifically, famous ones – is if they live in a country that has a high (or not) degree of gender equality. Of course, this varies by country. In their research, that was the differential that was found to make people able (or not) to recognize well-known visages in a crowd of the opposite sex… or see just another female human, and keep walking.

Which countries scored well, and which didn’t

The findings were published last November in Scientific Reports.

In one grouping, it was found that Scandinavian and North European countries, well-known for their gender egalitarianism. Men living in those types of countries do almost as well as women incorrectly identifying the faces of female celebrities.

The findings bore out in the opposite way, as well. Men living in countries with lower gender equality, such as India or Pakistan (just for example), did much worse than the men in Scandinavia when it came to perceiving female celebs.

Interestingly, men in the US fell somewhere in-between these two extremes. This is because, the researchers said, the U.S. was right about in the middle when it came to gender equality.

The study

Simply put, the results are based on scores from facial recognition tests on almost 3,000 participants from the U.S. and eight other countries. They discern that sociocultural factors – a broad collection of customs, values, and attitudes around education, politics, law, religion, and attitudes – can create the ability to spread individual characteristics over broad categories.

In turn, men living in countries with low gender equity become disposed to “lumping” – blurring individual differences when it comes to recognizing female faces. That’s why a famous one wouldn’t stand out from a crowd.


“Our findings underscore how important social and cultural factors are in shaping our cognition and in influencing whom we recognize and whom we do not,” said study first author Maruti Mishra, Harvard Medical School research fellow in psychiatry in DeGutis’s lab. “Culture and society have the power to shape how we see the world, in a release.”

“All these biases stem from a tendency to categorize rather than individualize,” said study senior investigator Joseph DeGutis, Harvard Medical School assistant professor of psychiatry and a researcher at VA Boston Healthcare System.

Co-investigators included Jirapat Likitlersuang, Jeremy Wilmer, Sarah Cohan, and Laura Germine. The research was supported by the National Institutes of Health National Eye Institute (grant R01EY026057).