Our brains are so adept at detecting faces that we often see them in random patterns, such as clouds or the gnarled bark of a tree. Occasionally one of these illusory faces comes along that resembles a celebrity and the story ends up in the news – like when Michael Jackson’s face appeared on the surface of a piece of toast. A new study asks whether some people are more prone than others to perceiving these illusory faces.
Tapani Riekki and his team collected dozens of photos that judges in pilot work agreed did or did not have the appearance of faces in them (this included pictures of furniture, places, and natural scenes, such as a rock-face). The researchers then used two adverts to recruit their participants – they were identical except that one requested people who “view the paranormal positively or believe that there is an invisible spiritual world,” while the other requested people who are “sceptical about paranormal phenomena”.
Forty-seven people were eventually selected to take part, based on their being particularly paranormal-believing, religious, sceptical or atheist (there was a lot of overlap in membership between the first two and final two categories). The participants were shown the photos and had to indicate whether a “face-like area” was present, where it was in the image, and they had to say how face-like the image was, and how emotional.
The key finding is that people who scored high in paranormal belief or religiosity were more likely to see face-like areas in the pictures compared with the sceptics and atheists. They weren’t more sensitive to the illusory faces as such, because they also scored a lot of false alarms – saying there was a face when there wasn’t. However, when they spotted a face-like pattern correctly, they were more accurate than sceptics and atheists at saying where exactly in the pictures the illusory faces were located. Finally, the paranormal believers rated the illusory faces as more face-like and emotional than the sceptics.
The researchers said their findings are consistent with past research showing that belief in the paranormal tends to go hand-in-hand with a tendency to jump to conclusions based on inadequate evidence. They added that the results support the idea that religious people and paranormal believers have the habit of seeing human-like attributes, including mental states, in “inappropriate realms.”
“We may all be biased to perceive human characteristics where none exist,” Riekki and his team concluded, “but religious and paranormal believers perceive them even more than do others.”
Riekki, T., Lindeman, M., Aleneff, M., Halme, A., and Nuortimo, A. (2012). Paranormal and Religious Believers Are More Prone to Illusory Face Perception than Skeptics and Non-believers. Applied Cognitive Psychology DOI: 10.1002/acp.2874