How good are you at recognizing faces?


While I am terrible at remembering names, I thought that I was pretty good at remembering faces. The main evidence that I had for that is that I often notice resemblances between unrelated people that others miss and when I watch films, I often recognize minor actors that I have seen before in other films.

It turns out that there are some people who are super-recognizers of faces. This quality is the opposite prosopagnosia or face blindness where people have difficulty recognizing familiar faces, even their own, a condition that became widely familiar after Oliver Sacks published his book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.

In 2009, a team of neuroscientists from Harvard did one of the first studies of super-recognisers. In it, they looked at just four people who claimed to have an unusually good ability to recognise faces.

All four subjects told the researchers about instances when they’d recognised practical strangers: family members they hadn’t seen for decades or actors they’d glimpsed once in an ad and then seen again in a movie. They felt like there was something wrong with them.

Research suggests that super-recognising is fundamentally different from memory, and isn’t a skill that can be sharpened with training, like some aspects of traditional memorisation can.

It turns out that the numbers of people who have this ability is really quite tiny and so researchers have developed a quick online test that they said may be able to identify potential ‘super recognizers’ of faces to see if they can increase the pool of such people so that they can investigate it more thoroughly.

Given my sense that I may be a super-recognizer, I took the test which consists of showing you a face for about 5 seconds and then asking you to pick that face out a lineup of faces. There are 14 such sequences and if you score at least 10, you may be one of those people with this ability

Alas, I got only nine right, which means that I had a highly inflated opinion of my facial recognition abilities. Annoyed, I waited a day so that I would forget my previous responses, and tried again. The items in the test were the same as before but this time I got just eight right so there is clearly no hope for me. Maybe some of the readers of this blog are better.

Comments

  1. Chiroptera says

    Heh. I wouldn’t say “highly inflated”; you did appear to land on the border line of super powered ability.

    Me, I’ve found that as I’m getting older, I’m losing the ability to recognize new faces when I see them again. And never mind trying to match up childhood pictures with their adult appearances, which other people seem to do much better than me!

  2. Eric Riley says

    I hit 11 but I could tell that I was starting to get tired too (at the end, you can see which ones you got wrong – mine were all in the second half, and I totally missed the last one because I couldn’t really concentrate on looking at the picture at the beginning.

    They’re sending me a link for the second part of the test – though I suspect I will only be slightly above average (and I know that I often miss, for example, actors in movies…)

  3. kestrel says

    How good am I at recognizing faces? I suck at it. I have prosopagnosia and struggle to identify my own face in a photograph. I took this test and that first one I knew. The rest I just had to guess. By pure luck I got 6 right.

    I do quite well at recognizing people’s voices, if I have had a chance to hear them talk enough. I also try and remember what they are wearing. This means that in all those silent scenes in the X-Files I had pretty much no idea who that person was, since a lot of them wore basically the same outfit (dark suits) and had basically the same haircut.

  4. rpjohnston says

    9. And I know I’m not actually very good at recognizing faces…

    Why are they all white men. Why, in fact, are they all the same handful of men. I noticed that guy with the mole on his left cheek several times.

  5. Mano Singham says

    rpjohnston,

    Maybe because all white men look alike and so it made for a good test …?

    I kid! I kid!

  6. Reginald Selkirk says

    9. And I do not consider myself good at names and faces.
    Several times I found myself focusing one aspect of a face, like a cleft chin, and the follow-up had all the faces in profile so that feature was not visible.

  7. blf says

    Over at Thoughts of Crys I excerpted-from and linked-to an article from last year about the London Met (police force) squad of super-recognizers, and the best performer in that squad.

  8. laurentweppe says

    11 (including one missclick -I knew the right answer was five, then clicked 6 because I was watching the TV at the same time-

    Not too shabby, especially since I was convinced that I’d get less than half the answers right when they started to do the face/profile switcheroo.

  9. Mano Singham says

    blf @#12,

    Thanks for that link. I really should pay closer attention to what is going on over at the other FtB sites.

  10. Chiroptera says

    Mano Singham, #10: They say no, but I don’t see why not. That may require further study.

    There are a lot of skills (like, for example, using language) that needs to be learned during a certain period of brain development, otherwise it can’t be learned well or even, perhaps, at all. Maybe they think face recognition is one of them.

    As a college instructor who sometimes tries to teach remedial level material to young adults, I often wonder whether there is a much larger number of such skills than we are told.

  11. Karen Locke says

    I’m bad with faces. I’m absolutely horrible with names. I’ve also lived in the same community for 36 years. This leaves me occasionally in situations where people come up to me in public spaces and say “Karen, how are you? Haven’t seen you in ages. What’re you doing now?”… and either the person seems to be a total stranger or their face is only vaguely familiar. I exchange pleasantries and carry on, never letting on that I’m being clueless. But I always feel like I might be really missing something.

    Oddly enough, I’m better at identifying people by gait and movement. I can pick out people who carry themselves in a familiar way more easily than I can pick out familiar faces. I remember sitting at a lunch table once where colleagues were gossiping about someone (never believe that guys don’t gossip), and I saw him walk in the door (I never saw his face). I immediately said “hush, he’s here.” They doubted me until they saw his face. The guy in question didn’t have a limp or anything else distinctive; it was just… him. His moves. His body. This was 30 years ago; I think I’d recognize that body today. The face, not so much.

  12. Mano Singham says

    Karen,

    I have a similar problem to you in that when I see someone in a location that is different from where I normally see them, I recognize the face but have no clue as to how I know them. I too tread water conversationally, desperately trying to figure out who they are, hoping that they will not notice.

    Once I ran into someone in an office who greeted me cordially and it was only much later that I realized that she was someone who lived down the street from me and who had been my neighbor for years. On another occasion, I met someone at the airport and chatted for awhile and only later remembered that he was someone who worked at my university.

    I find these encounters excruciatingly embarrassing.

  13. Holms says

    #11
    Ugh yes that was annoying, but that one guy taking his sunnies off was especially annoying.

  14. rpjohnston says

    @ Mano @ 8 pfffft hahahah. Of course we all know that early-20’s douchebro named Chip whose clones make up the sooper secrat illuminati army.

    @ Karen almost exactly the same for me too, in both parts.

  15. Kilian Hekhuis says

    11, but that’s because you start looking out for special features, I wouldn’t call that a generic recognition test…

  16. tecolata says

    I am dreadful. Dreadful. I remember names but attaching them to faces? I have worked at places for years and still can’t put the names and faces together – the people with whom I interact daily, yes, but the ones I work with occasionally or just see around? Forget it.
    When I had not seen my brother for a few years and needed to meet him at an airport, I was not sure I had the right person so I said “ahem” figuring if it was the wrong one I’d pretend to cough – at least I got that right.

  17. Marshall says

    I scored a 14/14. Every time we watch TV, I’m constantly saying “that person looks like X” and my girlfriend disagrees and tells me that I’m delusional.

  18. Mano Singham says

    Marshall,

    Congratulations! You should volunteer to be studied further. It might be fun!

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