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Adults demonstrate exquisite sensitivity to the characteristics of the human face; indeed, it is one of the few visual categories for which we exhibit near-universal expertise. However, despite this expertise, our recognition abilities for the faces of individuals of different racial backgrounds and ages are significantly impaired, which can negatively affect our interactions with others. In the present article, I examine expertise and biases in face processing by exploring two frameworks: 1) the traditional evolutionary model cited by most academics, and 2) a novel integrative approach guided by a Reformed Christian perspective focused on reconciling modern research findings within a creation, fall, redemption narrative. In doing so, I demonstrate that a Christian worldview offers a unique lens through which we can understand both expertise and limitations in face processing. Moreover, such a perspective provides a compelling framework for guiding efforts at reconciliation, which traditional models have not been able to satisfactorily address. Lindsey Short is associate professor of psychology at Redeemer University in Ancaster, Ontario.

Imagine the following scenario. You are a Caucasian adult who was born in Canada and have lived in a small city in Southern Ontario your entire life. Your family has recently decided to sponsor a German exchange student for a six-month study abroad trip to Canada. You have never met the student you are sponsoring, but she has sent you a photograph of herself in advance of her arrival. As you wait for her in the international terminal of the nearby airport, you scan each person who exits the customs station, paying particularly close attention once it is announced that the flight from Berlin has arrived. As each face passes by, you are able not only to rapidly encode salient dimensions such as the sex, race, and age of the individual but also to match each identity to the stored mental representation you have of your exchange student’s face based only on a single photo. As soon as your exchange student passes through the gate, you are instantly able to recognize her and welcome her to Canada.

Now let’s slightly modify the scenario. Instead of sponsoring an exchange student from Germany, you are sponsoring a student from China. As with the German student, she has sent you a photo in advance. However, this time as you are watching the Chinese passengers exit the customs station after their flight from Beijing, you find that encoding each face is far more difficult. In fact, you realize that the single photograph she has sent you does not help you at all and you are completely unable to recognize your exchange student from the rest of the crowd. Embarrassed and worried about making a negative first impression, you anxiously wait for your student to identify you, hoping that she does not encounter the same difficulty in finding you.

How is it possible that we can be simultaneously so good yet so bad at recognizing faces? Does our differential ability in recognizing own- relative to other-race faces hint at underlying prejudices? Moreover, do we observe similar recognition biases for other social categories, such as individuals of different ages? In the present article, I will attempt to address these questions by exploring two frameworks: 1) the traditional evolutionary model cited by most academics, and 2) a novel integrative approach guided by a Reformed Christian perspective focused on reconciling modern research findings within a creation, fall, redemption narrative. In doing so, I hope to demonstrate that although evolutionary accounts offer one level of explanation, a Christian worldview offers a unique lens through which we can understand both expertise and limitations in face processing. Moreover, such a perspective provides a particularly compelling framework for guiding efforts at reconciliation, which traditional models have not been able to satisfactorily address. In this way, I hope to provide an example of how scientific and Christian perspectives can be well-integrated and mutually reinforcing of one another and not in conflict.

Background on Face Processing

Of all the visual categories studied by researchers, there is only one class of stimuli for which humans demonstrate universal perceptual expertise: faces. As adults, we possess an extraordinary ability to recognize individual faces, despite the fact that all faces share the same configural properties (i.e., two eyes located above a nose above a mouth).1 Within a matter of milliseconds, we are capable not only of determining a person’s identity2 but also of forming an impression of their attractiveness, trustworthiness, and aggressiveness based solely on facial appearance.3 These impressions are surprisingly resistant to change and can greatly influence the nature of our social interactions and even our relationships.

Such expertise takes years to develop and is limited to the face categories with which we have the most experience.4 In a process termed perceptual narrowing, experience guides and shapes our expertise with faces. At birth, we possess a broad perceptual processing system capable of discriminating between all categories of faces (e.g., other-race faces, faces of various ages). However, over time and with additional visual experience acquired during infancy and childhood, this broad system narrows and becomes specialized for the face categories encountered most frequently.5 In most cases, these are young adult faces of our own race (i.e., the race and age of our primary caregivers). By the time we are nine months old, the once-broad system has narrowed to the point that we exhibit preferential looking toward own-race faces6 and increased accuracy in discriminating own- relative to other-race faces.7 In contrast, infants raised in mixed-race environments do not show a comparable pattern of perceptual narrowing during the first few months of life8 and brief daily exposure to other-race faces is sufficient to reverse the effects of perceptual narrowing in infants aged eight to ten months9, providing further evidence that early experience exerts considerable influence on our face processing abilities. Although such early differences in processing may be perceptually rather than conceptually driven during infancy, these initial biases may nonetheless affect the way in which in- versus out-group faces are encoded and may contribute to the development of a stable “us versus them” mentality in adulthood.

The phenomenon in which own-race faces are recognized more accurately than other-race faces is termed the other-race effect, and ample research has provided evidence for this effect across a wide variety of ethnic groups.10 Presumably, lack of experience with other-race faces leads to reduced sensitivity to the dimensions (e.g., distance between the mouth and nose) along which these faces vary,11 which fosters the use of inefficient processing strategies and poorer facial encoding at first encounter. The heightened ability to process the dimensions of own-race faces becomes increasingly refined with age,12 and by the time we reach adulthood, the other-race effect is incredibly resistant to change, even if an individual receives extensive exposure to other-race faces by virtue of moving to a new cultural environment.13

In the same way that experience shapes our ability to recognize own- and other-race faces, it also produces a processing advantage for the dimensions of young adult faces.14 Young adult faces are typically the most frequently encountered face age category during infancy and early childhood,15 a time during which the perceptual system is most sensitive and refined by experience. As such, this produces a processing advantage for young adult faces that persists even into older adulthood. As with race biases, the young adult face advantage emerges quite early in life; there is evidence that children as young as three years show enhanced discrimination for the faces of young versus older adults.16

The own-race and young adult face advantage can have significant negative consequences on both perceivers and victims of misidentification. Although there is no evidence that the magnitude of the other-race effect is positively correlated to explicit prejudice,17 perceptual biases may lay the groundwork for implicit prejudice by making it easier for us to ignore or devalue those who belong to different social categories. For example, difficulty in discriminating between individuals of a different race may promote an out-group homogeneity effect such that other-race individuals appear “all the same” and lack unique personalities and characteristics. Furthermore, our tendency toward processing in-group members at the individual level and out-group members at the categorical level may lead to additional cognitive disregard toward out-group members.18 Collectively, such perceptual biases, though not inherently negative in themselves, reflect limitations in our expertise in face processing and can easily lead to hurtful and damaging social interactions with individuals who do not readily fit into our own-race, young adult prototype.

Evolutionary Explanations for Expertise and Limitations in Face Processing

Evolutionary science is the dominant framework through which research in face perception has been explained. Though its roots can be traced back to Dar- win’s original writings on natural selection,19 evolutionary psychology emerged as a unique sub-discipline in the field of psychology in the late 1980s and has since gained traction as one of the dominant means of explaining human behavior. At its core, evolutionary psychology argues that human nature and behavior is the product of evolved psychological mechanisms that aid in the survival and reproduction of the species. Such mechanisms reflect adaptations that have evolved via natural and sexual selection; accordingly, human behaviors, desires, and preferences can be explained as unconscious means of ensuring the survival of oneself and one’s offspring.20

As with many areas of study, principles of evolutionary psychology have been readily used to explain expertise and biases in face recognition. In the early 2000s, Duchaine, Cosmides, and Tooby argued that the human brain is a set of computational machines that through the process of natural selection, allow us to solve adaptive problems that were faced by our evolutionary ancestors.21 They pose that one such computational machine is a functionally specialized system for encoding and recognizing faces. Expertise in various aspects of face processing certainly provides humans with numerous advantages. For example, the new- born preference for face over non-face stimuli ensures that infants preferentially attend to aspects of their environment that provide them with nurturance and sustenance,22 and our ability to quickly and accurately gauge a person’s level of aggression based on facial appearance can inform survival-promoting approach/ avoidance behaviors.23

Even the finding that our perceptual system narrows toward the dimensions of own-race, young adult faces is consistent with the idea that our neural circuitry evolved to solve problems specific to our ancestral environmental circumstances.24 Early hominid societies were separated by large geographical distances; it is unlikely individuals from different groups would have encountered one another and therefore it would not have been necessary to have evolved a perceptual system capable of easily distinguishing between out-group faces.25 Likewise, it is only in recent years that individuals have consistently lived into older adulthood; our evolutionary ancestors would have encountered predominately young adults and thus it would have been far more adaptive to have evolved a perceptual system specialized for the dimensions of young relative to older adult faces. The process of perceptual narrowing therefore reflects a tuning of the underlying neural circuitry towards the dimensions of own-group, young adult faces, thereby increasing the efficiency with which we process the faces we are most apt to encounter.

Despite evolutionary psychology’s ability to parsimoniously explain many aspects of human face perception, the theory suffers several limitations that reduce its explanatory power. First, one of the key findings in face perception research is that humans exhibit a high degree of consensus in attractiveness ratings across cultures26 and that “averageness” is a key determinant of facial attractiveness.27 In other words, humans consistently rate faces that possess average (i.e., more prototypical) features as more attractive than faces that possess features that are farther from the norm (e.g., a face with extremely wide-set eyes or a large nose). According to evolutionary theory, this preference for averageness reflects an evolved mechanism useful for detecting high-quality mates. Averageness is thought to reflect developmental stability and heterozygosity,28 traits which can then presumably be passed on to one’s offspring that increase the likelihood of their survival and the perpetuation of one’s genes. At first glance, evolutionary theory’s argument makes a great deal of sense. However, more recent research has revealed that this bias towards averageness is not specific to human faces but extends to dogs, birds, and even wristwatches.29 Given that the key evolutionary argument for our bias for averageness is that it promotes the identification of high-quality mates that best allow us to pass on our genes, then such a mechanism should be specific to human faces and certainly not for inanimate objects such as wristwatches. To date, theorists have not been able to explain this bias beyond arguing that it may reflect a general preference for prototypical exemplars or may be a by-product of how our brains naturally process information.30

A second limitation to evolutionary accounts for human face perception involves the tentative explanation that has been given for perceptual narrowing. According to the evolutionary argument, perceptual narrowing toward the dimensions of own-race faces occurs because other-race faces were rarely encountered by our evolutionary ancestors and thus the mechanisms needed to support the processing of other-race faces were not necessary.31 Alternatively, it has been argued that enhanced processing of own-race faces is adaptive in that it encourages greater identification with in-group members, which would have aided survival in ancestral communities that were primarily racially homogeneous.32 There are two problems with both of these explanations. First, it is inaccurate to speak of early hominid societies as differing based on race; race is a modern, socially constructed concept,33 so it is erroneous to apply such terminology to our ancestral societies and doing so can insert modern-day social conceptions to what should be value-neutral descriptions. Second, regardless of which of the two explanations is offered, both imply that perceptual narrowing allows humans to become more efficient in processing the faces that are most frequently encountered. It thus follows that humans who maintain a broad processing system capable of discriminating between faces of different races would be at a disadvantage, perhaps because their perceptual system is less efficiently tuned for the dimensions of own-race faces. However, research does not support this idea. For example, East Asian adults who were born and raised in Canada show comparable recognition for East Asian and Caucasian faces, and the lack of perceptual narrowing toward own-race faces does not hinder their recognition abilities for own-race faces; Canadian-born East Asians’ overall recognition performance for Asian faces is equivalent to Caucasian adults’ recognition performance for Caucasian faces.34 Such results suggest that perceptual narrowing cannot fully be accounted for as a remnant of evolutionary pressures, as the maintenance of a broad perceptual processing system does not appear to harm the processing of own-race faces.

Lastly, evolutionary explanations for expertise in face processing suffer from a general limitation that plagues all evolutionary arguments: it is simply too easy to distort the theory to fit the research findings one encounters. Science journalist John Horgan describes this key limitation when recounting an interview he conducted with linguist Noam Chomsky:

[Chomsky] suggested that the field is not really scientific, because it can account for every possible fact. “You find that people cooperate, you say, ‘Yeah, that contributes to their genes’ perpetuating.’ You find that they fight, you say, ‘Sure, that’s obvious, because it means that their genes perpetuate and not somebody else’s.’ In fact, just about everything you find, you can make up some story for it.”35

This is a fundamental problem within the broader field of evolutionary psychology. There is a tendency for the public to believe that evolutionary psychology is purely objective and free from bias. However, even though evolutionary psychology is modeled on the natural sciences, such adherence does not guarantee value neutrality. Despite efforts to remain value-neutral, investigators inherently bring their own worldviews into their research questions and interpretations of their results; as human beings, it is simply impossible to be entirely objective. Even in the early days of evolutionary science, Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck recognized this conflict, arguing that because scientists are human beings with human desires, they will inevitably tend to turn natural science into natural philosophy; in particular, empirical observations will always be followed by some form of philosophical speculation that is colored by one’s own worldview.36 As an excellent example of how dramatically differently two scientists can interpret the same piece of data, one only needs to look at how the functional significance of musical perception is viewed. Anthropologist Steven Mither argues that rhythmic perception is an evolved trait connected to walking and marching in groups, and in a completely different interpretation of this same ability, linguist Steven Pinker claims that it serves no purpose and just happens to activate regions in the brain associated with pleasure.37 Although this example is specific to musical perception and not face perception, it nevertheless captures an inherent limitation of evolutionary psychology—a significant degree of subjectivity and individual interpretation exists even in the realm of science.

Given such limitations, it is clear that evolutionary psychology cannot fully account for all aspects of our expertise in face processing. At the same time, we also should not completely dismiss such evolutionary arguments, for they do offer some explanatory power that allows us to better understand our environment and ourselves. To that end, I argue that the most fruitful way to conceptualize expertise and limitations in face processing is to take an integrative approach that combines data-driven science with a Christian perspective that acknowledges how abilities and deficits in face perception play out within a creation, fall, redemption narrative.

Integrating Scientific and Christian Perspectives

Throughout the past century, science and the Christian faith have increasingly been portrayed as polar opposites, with science painted as “fact-based” and religion painted as “opinion-based”.38 As a branch of science, psychology in particular has been hostile to the Christian worldview, with behaviorist John Watson calling Christianity a “myth” and psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud referring to it as a “neurosis”.39 Thankfully, in more recent years, the scientific discipline of psychology has been more receptive to examining the influence of faith and spirituality, and there even exists a unique division of the American Psychological Association devoted to the psychology of religion and spirituality. However, longstanding perceptions of the division between science and faith have led many Christians to dismiss science as a whole or be openly mistrustful of its claims. In some extreme cases, Christians have even become disillusioned with scholarship and the academic establishment entirely.40 The resulting lack of communication between parties serves to reinforce the idea that faith and science are incompatible with one another, but the reality is that the conflict is largely superficial and there is actually deep concord between theistic religion and science if one is willing to look.41

As a science, psychology has provided us with great insight into human behavior and the functioning of the mind, and evolutionary psychology in particular has helped us to better understand ourselves and the created world. However, there are some questions that psychology as a purely scientific discipline can- not adequately answer, and one potential reason for this is that a background assumption of the field is that it is possible to understand reality without God.42 However, when God is removed from the equation, a crucial piece of the puzzle is missing; as stated by poet Friedrich Rückert, “Nature is God’s book, but man will experience that without divine revelation his attempt to read it will fail.”43 All of creation—humans included—shows signs of God’s fingerprints (Ps. 19:1-4), and to deliberately ignore this closes us off from full understanding. Instead of pitting science and faith in opposition to one another, the best way to truly understand creation and how human beings fit within creation is to merge the tools of science with the knowledge that comes from Scripture.

Dutch Reformer Abraham Kuyper famously stated that “there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”44 and this same logic should certainly be applied to the study of human behavior. Rather than viewing psychology as humans studying humans, we should view it as God revealing Himself through human beings and through our relationships with one another and with the created order.45 In this way, psychological science can be used to celebrate creation and acknowledge God’s authority.46 As stated in Colossians 1:17, Christ is “before all things and in Him all things hold together.” Therefore, Christ should be at the center of psychological science, and rather than dismissing or fleeing from scientific endeavors, Christians should seek to help such scholarship develop with a thoroughly Christian worldview.47

Thus far, in describing how Scripture can inform findings in psychological science, I have spoken in broad terms; however, given the topic of the present article, my goal is to demonstrate how a Christian worldview can help illuminate key findings in the field of face perception. In particular, I wish to demonstrate how expertise and limitations in face processing fit within the broader Biblical narrative of creation, fall, and redemption. The use of such an approach best illustrates why we were created to be experts in face processing and how deficits in this ability came to be. Moreover, unlike traditional evolutionary models, the integrative Christian framework provides us with a model for how to best overcome relational conflicts that can result from such biases in perception.


From the very beginning, God created us as relational beings (Gen. 2:18)48; we were made to be in relationship with God, with the created order, and with one another.49 Furthermore, we were created in the image of God (imago dei); while this does not necessarily mean that we bear God’s physical resemblance, it does mean that we were given a unique place in creation (Gen. 1:26-27). Indeed, the body itself is a place of divine revelation, and it is through our embodied selves that we engage and communicate with others.50 God has specifically created each of us as unrepeatable, unique bearers of His glory, but He has also designed us such that we are all interconnected and cannot thrive on our own. Just as the anatomical body cannot work with only one organ, we have been called to collectively work together as the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:12).

The field of face perception provides ample evidence of the importance of our roles as relational beings. Despite our poor visual acuity at birth, newborns preferentially look toward dynamic schematic faces relative to dynamic scrambled images that contain the same visual features arranged in a non-face pattern.51 This early bias toward faces ensures that infants receive ample visual experience with human faces, which is crucial for the development of more advanced skills in face perception. Furthermore, this preference drives infants into relationship with others from birth onwards and demonstrates how God created us as distinctly relational beings meant to be in community with one another.

There is additional evidence that God created us with perceptual systems that prioritize the human face. As mentioned earlier, faces are the one class of visual stimuli for which humans exhibit universal expertise, likely because the human face is a highly social stimulus that provides a wealth of information that influences our interactions with others. Even in adults, faces are preferentially attended to over non-face stimuli52 and engage specialized neural resources throughout the occipital and temporal lobes of the brain.53 Given that there are unique electro- physiological and neuroanatomical components associated with face processing, many researchers have argued that faces represent a unique class of stimuli that are “special” relative to all other visual object categories (e.g., dogs, cars).54 This argument is consistent with a Christian worldview, in that it acknowledges that humans have been given a unique place in creation (Ps. 8). Though the mainstream academy may not recognize it, our exquisite sensitivity to the characteristics of the human face is a means by which God has set us apart from the rest of creation and has given us the tools to form meaningful relationships with others.

Moreover, the importance of the human face for communication and connection is repeatedly demonstrated throughout the Scriptures. Across the Old Testament, in several situations in which individuals have disobeyed God’s commandments, their failure and shame is conveyed by the act of their faces turning away (e.g., 2 Chron. 29:6, Jer. 32:33), thus showing that they are not in communication with God. Likewise, the act of recognition is central to many Biblical stories, ranging from Joseph’s brothers failing to recognize him in Egypt (Gen. 42:1-38) to Mary Magdalene mistaking the risen Jesus for the gardener outside the tomb (John 20:11-16). In both cases, an inability to recognize a known face led to miscommunication, demonstrating the centrality of facial recognition in human social interactions both in Biblical times and in the present day.

Lastly, the universal consensus that humans display in attractiveness preferences is readily explained by Scriptural passages that reveal that God displays Himself through the beauty of creation; thus, it makes sense that we are always on the lookout for that which is attractive. There are countless psalms celebrating the beauty of God’s creation (e.g., Ps. 19:1); of course, humans’ attractiveness preferences can be easily shaped by sociocultural factors, whereas God sees the true beauty behind all of us (Eccles. 3:11). Our preference for averageness as a marker of attractiveness is slightly more difficult to explain. It may be the case that averageness is attractive because it reflects what is most common and that which we see most often; in this way, God helps us to see the beauty in everyday people. After all, each of us has been “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Ps. 139:14) and reflects God’s glory. God has simply helped us to further recognize this beauty in that which is all around us by making us extremely sensitive to the characteristics of average-based representations. This is also consistent with the pattern of the extraordinary arising out of the ordinary that is displayed all throughout the Scriptures. Indeed, Jesus Christ came to earth not as a powerful king and ruler but instead as a humble, seemingly ordinary man born in a stable; there can be no greater example of the “average” opening us up to the beauty of the extraordinary than this.

In examining the consistency between research findings from the field of face perception and that which is revealed about God’s good creation in the Scriptures, it is clear that evolutionary psychology and faith are not at odds with one another (at least with regard to the recognition of humans as fundamentally relational beings). Moreover, it is not necessary to reject evolution as a process through which God created humans. It is fully possible that Christian thought and evolutionary psychology can exist in a mutually beneficial relationship, and additional evidence for the compatibility between scientific findings and the Christian faith appears when we next examine how the Fall has distorted human social relationships.


Despite the initial goodness of all of creation, we as humans have fallen from grace; like toxins polluting a river, Adam’s original sin has tainted the whole of creation and each of us has fallen short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). Wolters55 clarifies the distinction between structure, which he defines as the order of creation, and direction, which refers to the order of sin and redemption. Any aspect of creation can be distorted by the fall, and according to Wolters, the presence of sin introduces a new and distinct dimension to creation, perverting what was once a creational good.

A direct consequence of the fall is that human relationships are easily distorted by sin, and this is clearly evident in our society that is fractured along racial and age-based lines. For example, despite race being a social construct, skin color has repeatedly been used as a means of categorization; theologian Mary Shawn Copeland argues that skin morphs into a biased-induced horizon that “hides the ‘other’ from me and renders the ‘other’ invisible.”56 In this way, members of privileged groups withdraw from contact with other, less privileged members of society and perceived differences become further exaggerated. Such division serves to reinforce stereotypes, and as we will soon discuss, directly affects our perceptual abilities.

God intended for us to be in community with all people; however, our society has historically been—and continues to be—structured such that we have reduced exposure to people of different races and ages. For example, despite anti- segregation policies, schools and neighborhoods are often divided along racial lines (e.g., the trend of “White flight” into suburban areas). Likewise, as a society, we tend to separate individuals by age; classrooms are age-graded, young adults often live in age-restricted housing units (e.g., residence halls), and the elderly are commonly placed into long-term care facilities that are infrequently visited by the young. Moreover, even the mainstream scientific academy often reinforces these artificial divisions, such as by improperly separating early hominid societies by the modern, socially constructed conception of race (as discussed earlier).

Such de facto segregation directly affects our face processing abilities. As described earlier, expertise in face perception is dependent upon experience; reduced contact with other-race and older adult individuals leads to decreased sensitivity to the dimensions along which these faces vary,57 which fosters the use of inefficient processing strategies and poorer encoding of a face at first encounter. Such limitations in face processing are not sinful per se; however, they may lay the groundwork for prejudice by making it easier for us to ignore or devalue those who we perceive to be different. For example, research has demonstrated that young adults allocate less attention to both other-race58 and older adult59 individuals, perhaps because they view members of these out-groups to be all the same and less relevant than in-group members.

The tendency to cognitively disregard and improperly encode out-group faces has damaging consequences to our social interactions and limits our ability to see the expression of God in others. All humans, regardless of race or age, are God’s handiwork and to fail to recognize this is to dishonor the divine artist.60 Such out-group biases and in-group favoritism can lead to a sinful devaluation of others, as God Himself does not show favoritism (Acts 10:34-35; Gal. 2:6) and nor should we (Acts 10:26-28). Moreover, this failure to acknowledge and respect others’ uniqueness disrupts our call to love others (Matt. 22:39), to keep the unity of the spirit (Eph. 4:3), and to work together for the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:12). It is a clear deviation from the way in which God intended for humans to relate to one another.

Redemption and Restoration

Thankfully the fall is not the final act of the Biblical narrative; instead, the final act is redemption through Jesus Christ. It is through the sacrifice of His only son that God provides the means of restoring creation.61 God has preserved in us a sense of the divine62 (sensus divinitatis), and though the effects of sin have shadowed God’s good creation, we are called to work toward restoring individual aspects of creation. Plantinga63 describes how Christians are called to engage with the world, rather than shut themselves off from it, and to obey the cultural mandate (Gen. 1:28) to transform society in a way that best fits God’s original design. Although God will ultimately completely transform the world and cleanse all of the distorted aspects of culture (Isa. 60; Rev. 22:1-5), Christians should not passively wait for this to occur.64 Instead, we should work toward shalom and reconciling the barriers which divide us from one another.

Although the mainstream academy does not openly acknowledge the cultural mandate as described by Scripture, there have nevertheless been attempts to discover means by which we can lessen the magnitude of out-group perceptual biases. There is ample evidence that frequent contact with those of other races and ages can at least partially reduce the strength of the own-race, young adult face advantage. For example, young adults who frequently encounter older adults (such as by working in long-term care facilities) exhibit comparable recognition accuracy for young and older adult faces.65 The effects of contact are most significant when such exposure occurs during infancy and childhood, presumably because this is when the face processing system is largely being refined.66 This sensitive period highlights the importance of ensuring that children in particular are regularly exposed to individuals of different races and ages.

Passive exposure, however, is only one part of the equation; research suggests that quality of contact is far more important than sheer quantity of contact. For example, simply sitting next to a group of older adults does not have the same effect as spending quality one-on-one time individuating older adults, such as by working together as a team to solve a problem. Similarly, the more experience a person has individuating other-race faces, the less of an own-race advantage he or she exhibits in face perception.67 Likewise, when individuals are trained in the lab to pay more attention to other-race faces, there is a reduction in implicit racial prejudice.68 Overall, such results suggest that a key step toward reconciliation is simply encouraging the formation of meaningful one-on-one relationships between members of different social groups. The Scriptures themselves are in agreement with the importance of fostering significant, meaningful relationships with all people and not just with those in our own social group. For example, the book of James discusses treating all others equally, describing the sin of showing favoritism to a rich man wearing fine clothes over a poor man wearing filthy, old clothes. Moreover, it is equally sinful to simply give kind words to the poor man without taking the time to actually learn his needs and provide for them (James 2:1-17).

Unfortunately, most studies examining the reduction of out-group perceptual biases have occurred within the context of the lab and have failed to explore the long-term effects of contact with other-race and other-age individuals. Moreover, these studies have offered little in terms of tangible suggestions (outside of lab-based exercises) for improving inter-group relations. This is where a Christian approach toward reconciliation can provide a unique contribution towards reducing bias and fostering community. Such an approach can also help move us beyond evolutionary psychology’s discussion of ancestral group differences that are tied up in modern-day social constructions.

Jesus’ ministry on earth provides an excellent example for how to be inclusive and loving of our neighbors, no matter their race, age, or background. For example, in John 4:1-38, Jesus stops by a well and asks a Samaritan woman for a drink. She is shocked that he, a Jew and member of a different ethnic and social group, would even speak to her. However, Jesus continues to communicate with her and through this interaction, many came to believe in Jesus as the Messiah by her testimony. Throughout the New Testament, we see other countless examples of Jesus interacting with those who were outcasts in his time—tax collectors (Luke 5:27-32), lepers (Mark 1:40-42), and prostitutes (Luke 7:36-50). Jesus’ ministry is clear evidence of how the family of God is not to be divided along social, ethnic, or age-based barriers. As Christians, we should provide a model for healing and reconciliation. We should pray for God’s forgiveness for failing to recognize and embrace those who we may initially view as different from us and ask the Lord to open our hearts to view others as He sees them—as children of God and worthy of love and attention. Indeed, it is in our differences that God reveals his creativity.69

In 1982, the Dutch Reformed Mission Church in South Africa drafted the Belhar Confession in response to the system of apartheid that separated their country, and this document provides an excellent example for how Christians should approach reconciliation. It maintains that racial and social factors should not divide the church and that diversity provides opportunities for mutual service and enrichment. It is important to recognize not only our shared characteristics (i.e., as children of God) but also our unique gifts, and as Christians, we should strive to be one body that has many discrete but interdependent members. In our broken world, the church should witness against injustice, lovingly welcome all groups, and serve as an example of reconciliation. In this way, justice and harmony “might roll down like waters”70 and the biases that plague our world might begin to dissipate.

God never intended for us to be separated from one another. In the Body of Christ, the barriers that divide us have been broken down; on Pentecost, all were able to understand the powerful works of God even though they were from different nations and spoke different languages (Acts 2:7-11). Moreover, in describing the Kingdom of God, Paul writes that “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28); hegemonic practices rooted in group differences, such as slavery, are an insult to God and a means of blaspheming against the divine artist.71 In imagining the Coming Kingdom, it is free from all racial and social barriers, and its citizens will be fed by the multinational presence of people who all bring unique gifts.72 Even the foundational documents of the Reformed tradition attest to the openness of God’s kingdom to all people; for example, Article 27 of the Belgic Confession states that “This holy church is not confined, bound, or limited to a certain place or certain people. But it is spread and dispersed throughout the entire world, though still joined and united in heart and will, in one and the same Spirit, by the power of faith.”73 Such a statement emphasizes our shared identity in Christ and the diversity that accompanies the universal church, and it provides an excellent example of how despite our many differences, we are all brothers and sisters in the family of God. Indeed, as Bavinck describes, the church of God is meant to be diverse, for while “every human being is himself or herself an image of God… that image is only fully unfolded in humanity as a whole.”74


Despite their portrayal in the media, science and the Christian faith should not be viewed as incompatible with one another but instead should be seen as mutually reinforcing perspectives that help us better understand our world. In describing how the Christian worldview can be used to inform findings in the field of face perception, I have provided an example of how these two perspectives can work together to lead to a richer understanding of God’s creation. For Christians working in the sciences, the goal should not be to attack the natural and evolutionary sciences; instead, we should acknowledge the rich insights and tools that have been developed by the mainstream academy and work to demonstrate how a Christian perspective can offer an even fuller understanding of various scientific and psychological phenomena; in this way, the two perspectives can coexist and even strengthen one another. Though we may “see in a mirror, dimly” (1 Cor. 13:12), the ultimate goal of Christian scholarship is to help us become clearer in our hearts about the nature of God and His creation, which allows us to more effectively witness to others about Christ and the Coming Kingdom.75

God has revealed Himself to us through His creation, and as humans, we have been given a special place in this creation. We have been given the ability to study, to learn, and to design methods that allow us to have better knowledge of our world. It is our responsibility to use these gifts in a way that honors and helps restore God’s good creation. Although studying expertise in face perception may seem far removed from traditional areas of Christian ministry, it should be recognized as serving a missional purpose in that at its heart, it acknowledges God’s authority over creation and celebrates how Christ has redeemed us and given us a model for His Coming Kingdom. Moreover, by studying how God has designed us and given us the template for how to best love and care for one another, we can better understand the nature of God and His endless power, creativity, and compassion.


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  10. Reviewed in Christian A. Meissner and John C. Brigham, “Thirty Years of Investigating the Own-Race Bias in Memory for Faces: A Meta-Analytic Review,” Psychology, Public Policy, and Law 7, no. 1 (2001): 3-35,
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  12. Lindsey A. Short, Alexandra J. Hatry, and Catherine J. Mondloch, “The Development of Norm-Based Coding and Race-Specific Face Prototypes: An Examination of 5- and 8-Year- Olds’ Face Space,” Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 108, no. 2 (2011): 338-357, https://
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  15. Jennifer L. Rennels and Rachel E. Davis, “Facial Experience During the First Year,” Infant Be- havior and Development 31, no. 4 (2008): 665-678,
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  25. Reviewed in Leda Cosmides, John Tooby, and Robert Kurzban, “Perceptions of Race,” Trends in Cognitive Sciences 7, no. 4 (2003): 173-179,
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  29. Jamin Halberstadt and Gillian Rhodes, “The Attractiveness of Nonface Averages: Implications for an Evolutionary Explanation of the Attractiveness of Average Faces,” Psychological Science 11, no. 4 (2000): 285-289,
  30. Rhodes, “The Evolutionary Psychology of Facial Beauty,” 199-226.
  31. Robert Kurzban, John Tooby, and Leda Cosmides, “Can Race Be Erased? Coalitional Computation and Social Categorization,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 98, no. 26 (2001): 15387-15392,
  32. Marilynn B. Brewer, “Ingroup Identification and Intergroup Conflict: When Does Ingroup Love Become Outgroup Hate?,” in Social Identity, Intergroup Conflict, and Conflict Reduction, eds. Richard D. Ashmore, Lee Jussim, and David Wilder (London: Oxford University Press, 2001), 17-41.
  33. Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial Formation in the United States, 3rd ed. (New York, NY: Routledge, 2014).
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  35. John Horgan, “Chomsky versus Trivers,” Web log post, September 28, 2006, https://dis-, 1.
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  37. Examples appear in Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2011), 132.
  38. David G. Myers and Malcolm A. Jeeves, Psychology Through the Eyes of Faith (San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins Publishers, 2003), 2-5.
  39. Ronald L. Koteskey, Psychology from a Christian Perspective (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1980), 44.
  40. Richard J. Mouw, Called to the Life of the Mind (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014), 5-8, 20.
  41. Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism, ix-xiv.
  42. George M. Marsden, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1997), 72-76.
  43. Quoted in Bavinck, Essays on Religion, Science, and Society, 104.
  44. Quoted in Richard J. Mouw, Abraham Kuyper: A Short and Personal Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2011), 4.
  45. Malcolm A. Jeeves, Psychology and Christianity: The View Both Ways (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1978), 65.
  46. Russell D. Kosits, “Deeply Engaged and Strongly Perspectival? The Impasse in the Psychology-Christianity Dialogue and Its Missional Resolution,” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 65, no. 3 (2013): 163-178.
  47. Tyler S. Greenway and Justin L. Barrett, “Cognitive Science, Sensus Divinitatis and Christ,” in Christ and the Created Order: Perspectives from Theology, Philosophy, and Science: Volume 2, eds. Andrew B. Torrance and Thomas H. McCall (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2018), 245-258.
  48. Paul Moes and Donald J. Tellinghuisen, Exploring Psychology and Christian Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014), 3-5.
  49. Colin E. Gunton, The One, the Three, and the Many (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1993).
  50. M. Shawn Copeland, Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2010), 8.
  51. Goren, Sarty, and Wu, “Visual Following and Pattern Discrimination of Face-Like Stimuli by Newborn Infants,” 544-549.
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  55. Albert M. Wolters, Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005), 59.
  56. Copeland, Enfleshing Freedom, 13.
  57. Reviewed in Zhou, Short, Chan, and Mondloch, “Judging Normality and Attractiveness in Faces: Direct Evidence of a More Refined Representation for Own-Race, Young Adult Faces,” 973-990.
  58. Thalia Semplonius and Catherine J. Mondloch, “Attentional Biases and Recognition Accuracy: What Happens When Own- and Other-Race Faces Are Encountered Simultaneously?,” Perception 44 (2015): 52-70,
  59. Lindsey A. Short, Thalia Semplonius, Valentina Proietti, and Catherine J. Mondloch, “Differential Attentional Allocation and Subsequent Recognition for Young and Older Adult Faces,” Visual Cognition 22, no. 9-10 (2014): 1272-1295, .2014.993007.
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  61. Wolters, Creation Regained, 69-78.
  62. Greenway and Barrett, “Cognitive Science, Sensus Divinitatis and Christ,” in Christ and the Created Order: Perspectives from Theology, Philosophy, and Science: Volume 2, 245-258.
  63. For a thorough discussion of how Christians can engage with society in their vocations, see Cornelius Plantinga, Engaging God’s World: A Christian Vision of Faith, Learning, and Living (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002).
  64. Richard J. Mouw, When the Kings Come Marching In (Grand Rapids, MI: William E. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002).
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  66. Short, Hatry, and Mondloch, “The Development of Norm-Based Coding and Race-Specific Face Prototypes: An Examination of 5- and 8-Year-Olds’ Face Space,” 338-357.
  67. Cindy M. Bukach, Jasmine Cottle, JoAnna Ubiwa, and Jessica Miller, “Individuation Experience Predicts Other-Race Effects in Holistic Processing for Both Caucasian and Black Participants,” Cognition 123, no. 2 (2012): 319-324,
  68. Sophie Lebrecht, Lara J. Pierce, Michael J. Tarr, and James W. Tanaka, “Perceptual Other- Race Training Reduces Implicit Racial Bias,” PLoS ONE 4, no. 1 (2009): e4215, https://doi. org/10.1371/journal.pone.0004215.
  69. Copeland, Enfleshing Freedom, 2.
  70. “The Belhar Confession,” in Our Faith: Ecumenical Creeds, Reformed Confessions, and Other Resources, ed. Leonard J. Vander Zee (Grand Rapids, MI: Faith Alive Christian Resources, 2013), 148.
  71. Copeland, Enfleshing Freedom, 24.
  72. Isaiah 60, as interpreted by Mouw, When the Kings Come Marching In.
  73. “The Belgic Confession,” in Our Faith: Ecumenical Creeds, Reformed Confessions, and Other Resources, ed. Leonard J. Vander Zee (Grand Rapids, MI: Faith Alive Christian Resources, 2013), 54.
  74. Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: God and Creation: Volume 2, trans. John Vriend, ed. John Bolt (Grand Rapids: MI: Baker Academic, 2004), 587.
  75. Mouw, Called to the Life of the Mind, 51-53.

Lindsey Short

Lindsey Short is associate professor of psychology at Redeemer University in Ancaster, Ontario.