When I am traveling Europe I often get mistaken for someone (maybe famous). I believe it has to do with the foreigner maybe not knowing the person's looks that well but I think it is more of not being able to hone in on attributes that are outside of their race/ethnicity. Is there a good word or phrase that sums this up?

I took 4 pictures with random people when I was in Europe for a month a few weeks back, and I was supposed to be 3 different people.

Note: Just to be clear, this isn't someone in a different country saying, "You look like so and so." This is them really believing that you are that person.

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    Nothing unusual, to an Asian to whom JFK was the only American face every seen (in the media perhaps), the typical American may 'look like' JFK. To many in the Africa and Arab countries, all Chinese may look exactly alike, no exaggeration there.
    – Kris
    May 22, 2014 at 5:14
  • More interesting is the fact that the term you're seeking, I believe, depends on who is being mistaken by whom. For example, Americans confusing a Chinese tourist in America as Jet Li would, at first glance, seem purely ignorant.
    – njboot
    May 22, 2014 at 5:29
  • Along the lines of Crocodile Dundee being mistaken for Clint Eastwood?
    – Gnawme
    May 22, 2014 at 6:15
  • @Gnawme - good example. Not perfect because that might be the case of celebrity confusion. If they truly made the mistake only off looks it works. May 22, 2014 at 14:37
  • As you've mentioned Simon Cowell, who else have you been mistaken for and where ? (I'll add that I was once 'mistaken' for Robbie Williams but I think they may have meant Robin Williams in The Fisher King)
    – Frank
    May 22, 2014 at 17:30

3 Answers 3


The technical terms are own-race bias and other-race effect or cross-race effect, and, according to Dr. Lawrence White, it is a cognitive bias stemming from one's tendency to look for differences that one is already familiar with, whereas the nature of these differences varies with different ethnicities. For example:

Black faces, for example, show more variability in skin tone, but White faces show more variability in hair color. In short, races have different kinds of physiognomic variability.

This conclusion refutes the hypothesis that the effect is motivated by prejudice or racial bias, by the way. (see also here and here)

  • Those are really close and I can use them if I can't find the exact word I am looking for. I could have swore that I saw something on either the History channel or Discovery that discussed this and I swear there was a name for my exact question. May 22, 2014 at 15:36
  • @ermanen You have to recognize from reading the references that race plays only a part of it, even though the terms are race-oriented. The effect is more about what are familiar physiognomic attributes and the tendency to focus on those when performing identification. May 22, 2014 at 15:53
  • @ermanen - mistaken nationality sounds like people are mistaking me for being Greek when I am American. In fact the 3 people I was supposed to be - 1 was German, 1 was British, and the other American. They are mistaking me for a specific person because of attributes (sometimes clothing). I am not even sure if the person mistaking understands what nationality the person is that they think I am. May 22, 2014 at 16:38

There is a phrase Mistaken Nationality from TV Tropes:

In Real Life, people far too often make erroneous assumptions about others based on flimsy or non-existent evidence. This is especially the case when regarding those who in some way are "outsiders". Often, hilariously wrong assumptions will be made based solely on appearance, failing to take into account the behaviour of the subject or other relevant circumstances.

One common form of this is to presume that a foreign-looking person belongs to such-and-such nationality and getting it very wrong.

There is a type of heuristics in psychology that is related to the topic. It is called "Beautiful-is-familiar effect" or "warm glow heuristics":

It is repeatedly found that attractive faces are more likely to be mistakenly labeled as familiar. Monin interprets this result in terms of attribute substitution. The heuristic attribute in this case is a "warm glow"; a positive feeling towards someone that might either be due to their being familiar or being attractive.

  • This really doesn't have anything to do with the question. They often have no clue what country I am from - I am a true mutt so this is not it. May 22, 2014 at 5:10
  • They are mistaking me for a specific person. Nobody was guessing at my nationality. May 22, 2014 at 5:15
  • But @RyeɃreḁd that is probably true because they (foreigners) are unfamiliar with your somatic features. Otherwise, why specify this happens abroad?
    – Mari-Lou A
    May 22, 2014 at 5:50
  • @Mari-LouA - it happens in the US too but less. And hardly ever someone of my race. May 22, 2014 at 17:10
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    @Mari-LouA - ermanen is starting to sound very smart. May 22, 2014 at 18:53

Having variously been mistaken for Keno, Shredder, and Jet Li, I can relate to your experience.

I haven't been able to find a single word for it, but a term I prefer is cross-race recognition deficit. It does seem to be synonymous with the terms cross-race effect or other-race effect mentioned in another answer.

The only reservation I have about endorsing this term is that I have been mistaken for these Asian actors by other Asians. Go figure.

  • Certainly not a good word but gives a clear description... And when I am in Asia - and just Asia - I am Simon Cowell. To the point where I could probably get by saying I am him and get free drinks at certain places. I have brown hair, much younger than him, and wear a lot of grey t-shirts. May 22, 2014 at 16:41

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