While most of us find it easy to recognise highly familiar faces such as those of family and friends, identifying faces that we have only briefly encountered is much more difficult. In fact, some research suggests that even experienced passport control officers make a large number of errors when matching faces to identity documents. Yet, recent work reveals that a small number of people may have extraordinary face recognition skills, outperforming typical people on a range of face recognition tasks.
These so-called “super recognisers” have an uncanny ability to recognise faces, remembering people they have not seen for decades, who have substantially changed in appearance, and who they have only fleetingly encountered. Some super recognisers have even been accused of stalking because the person that they recognised did not reciprocate the familiarity.
It is currently unknown how many people truly have superior face recognition skills. Popular tests assess participants’ ability to recognise photographs of celebrities that were taken a long time before they became famous. While these “before they were famous” tests are certainly fun to complete, it is very difficult to control for participants’ previous exposure to each celebrity.
A more reliable option is to assess performance on computerised tests that require participants to memorise faces and to later recall them. The number of correct responses can then be compared to the average score achieved by people with typical face recognition skills. This statistical procedure simply identifies the top 2% of the population – meaning that one in 50 people are currently classed as super recognisers.
Recent research carried out at Bournemouth University investigated whether these people are actually processing faces in a different manner to the rest of the population. It has long been known that the optimal way to process faces involves the use of a “configural” or “holistic” processing strategy.