My daughter is one, and currently involved in an undergraduate psychology experiment run by the University of Otago's Psychology Department. Ignoring the implication of the department's location inside the gaping, embarrassingly puddle-ridden Commerce Building, we trundle up the 7th floor, where she sits in front of screens and is shown faces of various races. The experiment, I was told by a young, slightly orange-faced young woman whose perfume reminded me of a cheap bar, was designed to investigate the details children used to differentiate between people of different races. My daughter was good at distinguishing people of roughly Nordic heritage. She struggled a little with Pacific Islanders, and, to cement a cliche as old as rice paper itself, was utterly lost when confronted with a range of Asian and Middle-eastern faces. Thankfully, it only took a few visits to get considerably better at discerning less familiar face types. My brazenly Aryan daughter had redeemed herself.
It turns out that the pattern recognition systems employed by our brains kick in early, lurching about, searching for a reliable range of details to distinguish one person from another. European children go for hair, noses, mouths. Asian kids are much better at eyes. And so on. The process is generic - it's not as though Korean kids are hardwired to recognise eyes - they're hardwired to find something to define one face from another, and it turns out, eyes are the thing. Hair in Asia, broadly speaking, just isn't varied enough to cut the mustard identity-wise. As a result, Asians' distinctions, when based on hair, are made in fairly broad strokes. Which solves, for me, an enduring mystery.
Consider the following:
I have no idea what these guys won, or who won, or even who they are, but there's some pretty funked-out, ka-ni, architectural hair going on right there - as there often is when young Japanese guys appear in front of a camera.
And now we know why - conditioned from birth to largely ignore hair as a definitive personal characteristic, these guys have to try about 3 or 4 times harder than you or me, to make a mark with their 'do. They're pushing against a crushing weight of cognitive selection, just to be noticed. Hence, what seems like a touching homage to My Little Pony (viz, the dude to the right of the MC) is really a restrained and debonair quiff that practically pays for itself after only two-and-a-half hours in make-up, and enough hairspray to fossilize a small penguin colony.
Or am I just being crazy, and the guys on American Idol look just as frou-frou?