Women really are better than men at processing faces

Often, if a film features two characters who look vaguely similar – for instance both are tall, dark-haired, middle-aged men – I will find myself confusing the two, as I struggle to form a distinct impression of each of their faces. Maybe it’s to do with the fact I’m male. New research by Ryan McBain has built on previous, more equivocal studies by showing that women are better than men at spotting a face in a display, and better at distinguishing between faces.

In an initial experiment, 35 women and 27 men had to say as fast as possible where on a screen a line drawing of a face appeared. The drawing was basic, showing only the outline of eye-brows, a nose, mouth and chin, and was embedded among other random lines. The female participants were more accurate than the men for this face-spotting task, whereas both sexes performed equally well during a control task that required them to spot trees.

A second experiment required 18 men and 18 women to look at a briefly presented target face and then say which of two subsequent faces, presented together, was the same as the initial target face.

When the conditions were easiest – with a short (half a second) interval between the target and subsequent faces, and the faces were displayed crisply – the male participants matched the performance of the female participants. However, as the task was made more difficult, either by extending the retention interval (to 3 seconds), or by reducing the visual quality of the images, the female participants began to outperform the men.

Previous research on this topic has suggested women, rather than being superior at face processing in general, might be better only at processing emotional facial expressions, or only at processing female faces. By using emotionally neutral and gender neutral faces, the present research suggests that women have a general face processing advantage, especially in more difficult viewing conditions.

McBain’s team said it was at present unclear how much sex differences in face processing are innate or learned. “Future investigations which compare face recognition performance in male and female children and adults may provide insight regarding the extent to which culture (e.g. gender role socialisation) influences gender-related differences in face perception,” they said.

R MCBAIN, D NORTON, Y CHEN (2009). Females excel at basic face perception. Acta Psychologica, 130 (2), 168-173 DOI: 10.1016/j.actpsy.2008.12.005

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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