Prosopagnosia – face blindness – used to be thought a rare condition caused only by head trauma. We now know that is not that rare – 2% in the U.S., perhaps (Radden Keefe, 2016) – and that the cause can also be genetic. It also used to be thought that you were either normal or had prosopagnosia. We now know that facial recognition falls on a spectrum. If there is an end of the spectrum where faces are not recognized, it stands to reason that there is another end of the spectrum where faces are easily recognized. And there is research to back up that reasoning. They are called super-recognizers.
For your students who are 18+, invite them to take the Cambridge Face Memory Test. “The average score on this test is around 80% correct responses for adult participants.” The page gives 60% as the cut-off for potential face blindness. I came in at 68%. I should add that this test uses only Caucasian males. Those of you familiar with the other-race effect may wonder about that. And you are right to wonder. They created a Chinese version and compared performance of participants of European descent and participants of Asian descent on both the Chinese version and the European version. As predicted by the other-race effect, participants of Asian descent did well on the Chinese version (average of 85% correct) but less well on the European version (average of 73% correct). Participants of European descent did well on the European version (76%), but less well on the Chinese version (average of 66%) (McKone, et.al., 2012).
Developmental psychologists may be wondering how kids perform. A separate study with five- to twelve-year-olds found that kids develop better facial memory as they age. For example, five-year-olds got 66% correct, 8-year-olds got 76% correct, and 12-year-olds got 85% correct (Croydon, et.al., 2014).
While we’re in the middle of this topic, I might as well throw in how good crows are at recognizing human faces (see this article for more information). Don’t ever tick off a crow.
What about those super-recognizers, though? How do they perform? Russell, Duchaine, and Nakayama (2009) found four people who were likely candidates for super-recognizer status. They tested them using the Cambridge Face Memory Test. Three of them earned perfect scores; one person missed one.
And what are super-recognizers looking at when they look at a face? The eyes? Nope. The nose. It’s unlikely that that’s because the nose has some sort of special significance. It’s more likely that it’s because the nose is in the center of the face, allowing the super-recognizer to take in the whole face (Bobak & Bate, 2016).
The forensically-minded may be wondering if the power of super-recognizers could be harnessed to fight crime. Yes, yes it can. New Scotland Yard created the Super-Recogniser Unit comprised of seven (as of August, 2016) police officers who are, well, super-recognizers. What do they do? Most commonly they look at closed circuit television (CCTV) video of crime suspects, and they look at photos of people who have been arrested. They are looking for a match. “It is not uncommon for a super-recognizer, out on the town with friends, to bolt off after spotting someone with an outstanding warrant.” One officer, James Rabbett, “since joining the team full time, six months ago… has made nearly six hundred identifications.” Yeah, but can’t computer recognition software do the same thing? Following riots in London, computers pegged one rioter. How did a super-recognizer do? He identified 190. Are they sometimes wrong? Yep. About 13% of the time. Their identifications alone are not enough to convict, though. Instead their identifications “help direct the investigation” (Radden Keefe, 2016).
After sharing this information with students, ask students where else the power of super-recognizers could be put to good use. If students need a hint, point out that looking at ID and looking then looking at someone’s face requires some facial recognition power.
Shout out to Ruth Frickle (Highline College) for posting the Radden Keefe New Yorker article to the STP Facebook page, an act that sent me down this research rabbit hole.
Bobak, A. K., & Bate, S. (2016, February 2). Superior face recognition: A very special super power. Retrieved from http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/superior-face-recognition-a-very-special-super-power
Croydon, A., Pimperton, H., Ewing, L., Duchaine, B. C., & Pellicano, E. (2014). The Cambridge Face Memory Test for Children (CFMT-C): A new tool for measuring face recognition skills in childhood. Neuropsychologia, 62, 60-67. doi:10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2014.07.008
McKone, E., Stokes, S., Liu, J., Cohan, S., Fiorentini, C., Pidcock, M., . . . Pelleg, M. (2012). A robust method of measuring other-race and other-ethnicity effects: The Cambridge Face Memory Test format. PLoS ONE, 7(10). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0047956
Radden Keefe, P. (2016, August 15). The detectives who never forget a face. Retrieved from http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/08/22/londons-super-recognizer-police-force
Russell, R., Duchaine, B., & Nakayama, K. (2009). Super-recognizers: People with extraordinary face recognition ability. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 16(2), 252-257. doi:10.3758/pbr.16.2.252