Think you’re good with faces? In fact, you probably don’t know much about your own face-recognition skills

6860363223_718ae3ee16_bBy Christian Jarrett

Life would be awfully confusing if we weren’t able to recognise familiar faces. It’s a skill most of us take for granted, and we rarely stop to consider the impressive cognitive wizardry involved. But some of us are better at it than others: in the last decade or so it’s become apparent that around two per cent of the population are born with a severe face-recognition impairment (known as congenital prosopagnosia), that there is a similar proportion of “super-recognisers” with unusually exceptional face-recognition skills, and that the rest of us are on a spectrum in between.

Where do you think your abilities lie? A new study in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology suggests that, unless you are severely impaired at face-recognition, you probably don’t have much insight into this question. When participants were confronted with the question: “Overall, from 1-‘very poor’ to 9-‘very good’, how would you describe your general ability to recognise faces?”, the research found that most participants’ answers bore no relation to their performance on a range of lab-based face-recognition tests.

Romina Palermo at the University of Western Australia led a large multi-national team that tested the face-recognition skills of nearly 300 undergrads recruited in Italy, Australia, and Belgium. The research involved established face-recognition tests and specially designed new ones. These tasks required participants to look at specific faces and then pick them out from among a larger range of faces later on, including in new lighting conditions and from different angles. One newly designed task involved watching film clips of people conversing, and then later identifying the actors’ faces from a display that featured several new faces.

Before they completed the face-recognition challenges, the participants answered questions about how well they thought they would do, including the single item question mentioned above or another that read “How well do you think you will perform (from 1 to 9) on studying and recognising faces from your own race”. There was also an established 15-item survey that involved questions like “I can easily follow actors in a movie” but this scale has been criticised for also including a few items not related specifically to face-recognition; and finally, there was a new, mammoth in-depth survey with 77-items that tapped participants’ beliefs about their basic face-recognition skills, but also what friends and family said about their skills, and there were other items covering experiences in specific contexts, such as “I have difficulty recognizing a colleague / student if I see his/her face outside my workplace / study.”

Overall, there was no correlation between participants’ scores on the single-item questions about their abilities and their actual face-recognition performance. There was minimal correlation between the 15-item survey and one of the face tests (the correlation was -0.14; note that higher scores on this test equal greater perceived difficulty hence the negative correlation). And there was a moderate correlation (0.30) between answers to the 77-item survey and test performance: this modest level of insight is similar to what’s seen when people are asked about their general memory abilities. So we might be capable of some insight into our face-recognition skills, but only if we’re led through a comprehensive series of nearly 80 questions, and even then it’s likely our answers will only correlate modestly with our actual performance.

The researchers also tested 13 participants who had registered with a congenital prosopagnosia website as having everyday problems with face recognition: they rated themselves as having poorer face-recognition skills than the students on the 15-item survey, which isn’t really a surprise as they complained of face-recognition problems. But crucially the prosopagnosics were no better than the students at identifying their level of ability relative to other people with prosopagnosia. In other words, they knew they had problems, but they didn’t have much insight into just how bad they were. However, a larger sample is needed to confirm this result.

“In summary,” the researchers said, “the ability of self-report questionnaires to measure insight into face recognition ability, even when the items concentrate on face recognition, appears limited.” They added that: “People with very poor face recognition skills may be more aware of their difficulties than the typical population, but such insight is clearly not universal.”

Assuming these results are accurate, why are most of us fairly useless at judging our face recognition abilities? The researchers speculated that part of the reason might be that, compared with, say, our language skills, which are tested regularly through schooling, we never actually receive any formal tests of our face recognition abilities. Also, they suggested that perhaps our subjective sense of our facial recognition skills is easily confused by our sense of our more general person-recognition abilities, which could be based on other cues, such as clothing, gait or tone of voice.

One limitation of this research was its focus on young adults. Face-recognition skills are known to mature and peak at around age 30. It will be interesting to see if middle-aged and older adults have better insight into their face identification skills than young people do.

Do people have insight into their face recognition abilities?

Image via Lisa Cee/Flickr

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

2 thoughts on “Think you’re good with faces? In fact, you probably don’t know much about your own face-recognition skills”

  1. I think that people may believe they’re good with faces, whilst not actually knowing anything about their own face-recognition skills. At the same time, I believe that people may not be as good at face-recognition as they think they are. In myself I recognise that I’m not very good at ‘recognising people’ unless I get to know them from a few meetings, but this has more to do with my ‘remembering’ and ‘attention’ skills, than actual face-recognition skills. I think some people may pay more attention or have a better memory for faces than others. For example if I were driving a car, I personally am not paying attention to who is walking along the pavement or driving another vehicle approaching me or behind me, but I am focussing on the safety factors of my own driving and assessing the general area for risks presenting themselves ahead or behind, such as pedestrians stepping out, or pets running loose, or police or ambulance vehicles using blue lights etc. All these things prevent my considering individual face-recognition because that is less important in that situation. Whereas some people seem to be able to recognise pedestrians or drivers of vehicles and acknowledge them whilst driving themselves. I simply don’t.

    I wonder if there are cultural differences in whether people have greater skills in face-recognition skills. Being a British born woman, but now living in Malta, I am aware that Maltese people seem to have a great many more people in general in their individual lives, and would recognise any of them from a distance. They also recognise them when seen out of context, i.e. in an unexpected place, and do so without any surprise or question as to their being there, even if that is 2,000 miles from their expected place of being. I experienced this when driving through London city centre with a Maltese friend in his car with Maltese registration plates, and another car in the next lane of slow moving traffic caught up to us, pipping his horn and waving and shouting! My friend put down the window and they stopped in their respective lanes and started having a conversation in Maltese like long lost friends, holding up the traffic to a certain extent, and eventually moved on. My friend was laughing to himself, and saying how great to have seen this person, and I asked him who it was and he said, “I don’t know, but he’s Maltese, so he’s family”. So in that situation even a stranger becomes as family, and is welcomed with little surprise at being there in that situation! In contrast, I feel that British people react very differently, and a British stranger is not acknowledged in the same way as the Maltese do, especially if that person were known to us and seen out of normal context, great surprise would be expressed at seeing them, once they had overcome the surprise or shock. There are a great many British people living in my area, and the differences between us and the Maltese is very marked.

    The people in this country seem to share this sense of ‘community’, of standing together, a general communal recognition without needing to speak. They are extremely verbally loud when communicating at a gatherings, and seem able to hold numerous conversations at once without confusion, or missing information. A table of 20 might be exchanging greetings and more, and not one of the people at the table will miss what is being said even if they’re holding a conversation with another group. It is a fascinating exercise just watching and trying to understand how they manage their relationships. It is not enough to have an individual conversation, and they will invariably walk away still speaking and carrying on the news, not saying goodbye until they’re probably 30 to 50 feet away, half way down the street, by which time they’re shouting goodbye, not speaking it. The same with face-recognition, if they see someone from that distance, they start shouting hello from a distance and begin a shouting conversation on the approach. It’s almost like they’re not aware of how they appear, or simply don’t care or see why anyone else would find their behaviour unusual.

    It would be very interesting to carry out some research on the island, because it is one of the densest populated areas of the world, being so very small, and maybe that has some connection to why it is so important that they have so many people in their lives that they know well, not purely as acquaintances.

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