Are you a super-recogniser?

by David White, James Dunn & Stephanie Summersby

Do you often recognise people that have no idea who you are? Do you recognise these pixelated people? If so, you may be a small proportion of the population with exceptional abilities in identifying faces.

Some people can spot a long-lost childhood friend from across a dimly-lit bar, while others struggle to recognise even their closest family members.

With Channel 7 Australia, our research team at UNSW Sydney set out to find people with superior face identification abilities, known as ‘super-recognisers’. You can watch the show here.

We have designed a very challenging web-based test of face identification ability. If you are reading this on a desktop or laptop, you can try this test by clicking this link. You can then compare your performance to the broader population, and an elite group of Australian super-recognisers, below.

The Passport Problem

Most of us are very adept at recognising the faces of people we know well — some may even able to identify the pixellated people above (the answers are: Michelle Obama, George Clooney, Ellen Degeneres).

In contrast, matching unfamiliar faces can be surprisingly challenging even when conditions are optimal. This is problematic because many important tasks rely on this very skill — for example matching a traveler to their passport, or a CCTV image to a police mugshot.

Try it yourself: are these images of the same person or different people?

When we are unfamiliar with a face, making this apparently straightforward decision turns out to be difficult — despite the images being high quality, taken on the same day and in identical studio conditions — around 30% of people incorrectly state that these images are of different people.

In a 2014 study, we found that passport officers make large proportions of errors on this task. Despite identifying unfamiliar faces in their daily work, they made errors on 1 in every 5 decisions.

However, there were large differences between passport officers — some scored 100% correct, and others scored 50% — no better than we would expect if they flipped a coin to decide.

What is a super-recogniser?

As with other biological traits, such as a person’s height or their intelligence, face identification abilities are ‘normally distributed’ across the population. This means that the majority of individuals have average abilities, while a small minority are exceptional.

Scientists have defined superior face recognition abilities as accuracy that exceeds 2 standard deviations above average. Given the predictable shape of normal distributions, this means that 2.5% of people have been classed as ‘super-recognisers’.

Likewise, at the other end of the distribution, the same proportion are defined as ‘faceblind’.

Research has shown that this ability is — quite literally — written in our DNA. As a result, organisations that rely on accurate face identification decisions, such as the London Metropolitan Police and the Australian Passport Office, now select staff on the basis of their face identification ability.

Super-duper-recognisers

We were asked to develop a new face identification test for an Australian TV show. Four Australian super-recognisers had been recruited as contestants, based on their performance in standardised tests of face identification ability. They each ‘max-out’ these tests — scoring 100% correct.

So, to separate the best from the rest — at this pointy end of the distribution — we needed to devise an extremely challenging test. Our test is difficult because it requires people to recognise faces despite substantial changes in appearance from one encounter to the next, caused for example by differences in age, pose, lighting, and expression.

If you haven’t taken the test yet, you can complete it here. Once you have taken the test, you can use the histogram below to compare your performance with 400 participants who have already completed the test. (To compute proportion correct you will need to add together your score on the two parts and divide by 120).

You can also compare your score to the Australian TV contestants, highlighted in red (and with you friends and family!).

Notice that even the best super-recognisers were far from maxing-out this test. This was a hard task!

Nevertheless, one of the Australian super-recognisers posted a quite remarkable score of 79%. At the time of writing, over 400 people have completed the test and not one person came close to this score.

While this is an astonishing benchmark, we are hopeful that there are other super-duper-recognisers out there. Perhaps that person is you?

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The TV show will air on Channel 7’s Sunday Night at 8pm on Sunday 10 September 2017 (Australian Eastern Standard Time). The UNSW Face Test can be completed at facetest.psy.unsw.edu.au until the end of September 2017.