May 21, 2009

Face recognition ability varies widely

U.S. and British psychologists say some people remember a face years later -- super-recognizers -- and some don't remember a face from yesterday.

The study, published in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, found the super-recognizers are one end of a spectrum of face recognition ability that also includes the lack of ability to recognize faces, or face-blindness.

Researchers led by Richard Russell of Boston's Harvard University administered standardized face recognition tests to the study participants. The super-recognizers scored far above average on these tests -- higher than any of the normal control subjects.

There has been a default assumption that there is either normal face recognition, or there is disordered face recognition, Russell said in a statement. This suggests that's not the case, that there is actually a very wide range of ability. It suggests a different model -- a different way of thinking about face recognition ability, and possibly even other aspects of perception, in terms of a spectrum of abilities, rather than there being normal and disordered ability.

Russell says some super-recognizers reported pretending not to recognize someone so as not to bring undue importance to a fleeting encounter. One woman was able to confirm she had identified another woman on the street who had served as her waitress -- five years earlier in a different city.