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Super-recognisers

Examining the possibilities of enhanced facial recall

People with exceptional facial recognition skills account for a small proportion of the population – but in areas such as security, their abilities can make a big impact.

Groundbreaking research from Bournemouth University’s Centre for Face Processing Disorders (CFPD) has discovered that 2% of the population have enhanced facial recognition abilities. These so-called ‘super-recognisers’ have superior skills in both distinguishing between faces and also recognising those that they may not have seen in decades, even those they have only fleetingly encountered. 

Professor Sarah Bate and her team began studying super-recognisers following years of working with people with prosopagnosia or ‘face blindness’. They began research in this area to try to understand whether prosopagnosia was a developmental disorder or a sliding scale of ability.

“The idea was that if we have people who are at the bottom end of a normal range when it comes to facial recognition, then there must be people who are at the top range too,” Professor Bate explains.

Professor Bate explains her work with super-recognisers

Super-recognisers at work

From scrutinising identification at passport control to working in the police force scanning CCTV footage for a lost child, Professor Bate is in no doubt as to where super-recognisers could use their skills. “This work is particularly important because it is becoming increasingly clear that computers can’t reliably replace humans in face recognition tasks,” she says.

“The identification of super-recognisers offers an alternative way in which we can improve national security using human resources. If we can also identify the processing strategies used by super-recognisers it is possible we can teach these techniques to people with typical face recognition skills.”

Several police forces are already working with the team to screen their officers for super recognition. This is far from a straightforward process, as Professor Bate’s research shows that different people are better at different aspects of facial recognition. The screening process isn’t just about identifying the best people; it’s about identifying the best people for the task in hand. This is why it is particularly important for the team to have rigorous research to back their theories.

The research also has practical implications for national and international security. One of the team’s tests mimicked the challenges faced by border control officials and showed that super-recognisers outperformed control participants by up to 18%.

“We have seen many examples where terrorists and criminals have been able to freely move between borders without being spotted,” says Professor Bate. “Our research means we could see people with identified super recognition skills deployed at borders known to be at risk of terrorist or criminal movement. 

These people might be much better at detecting when someone is trying to move between countries with fraudulent documents or posing as somebody else. This could be extremely important for both national and international security.”

View Professor Bate’s staff profile

Professor Sarah Bate

Associate Professor in Psychology and lead researcher at the Centre for Face Processing Disorders (CFPD)

These people might be much better at detecting when someone is trying to move between countries with fraudulent documents or posing as somebody else. This could be extremely important for both national and international security.

The research

The research took a variety of forms. One part saw volunteers complete a succession of computerised tests that required them to memorise faces, and later recall them. The number of correct responses was compared to the average score achieved by people with typical face recognition skills, with results indicating as many as one in 50 people could be super-recognisers.

Another approach incorporated eye-tracking technology, which assessed whether super-recognisers process faces in a different manner to the rest of the population. Typically, people use a ‘configural’ or ‘holistic’ processing strategy that involves seeing faces as a whole by taking account of all of the facial features and the spacing between them. However, super-recognisers displayed heightened configural processing.

“While control participants mostly looked at the eyes, super-recognisers spent more time looking at the nose,” Professor Bate reveals. “It is possible that this more central viewing position is one of the reasons that super-recognisers are better at processing faces than the majority of the population.”

1.3m
Approximately how many people in the UK could be super recognisers
18%
The percentage to which some super recognisers outperformed control participants, in tests used to mimic border control tasks
2%
Percentage of the population said to be super-recognisers

What causes someone to have the super-recogniser ability?

Curious as to why some people have this ability, Professor Bate began examining potential causes. “We found no evidence that these people have higher intelligence levels or excel at all visual or memory tasks. In fact, their superior ability is restricted only to the recognition of faces. It currently seems that some people are simply predisposed to developing this skill, and there is increasing evidence that face recognition skills are heritable.”

Backing this theory are twin studies which report a higher correlation in face recognition ability for identical compared to non-identical twins, another similarity to prosopagnosia, which is known to run in families.

Another key finding revealed that within the group of super-recognisers there are people who are even more superior at specific face recognition tasks. “For instance, while some of our super-recognisers were excellent at remembering faces, others had typical face memory skills yet were extremely good at deciding whether pairs of simultaneously presented faces were of the same person or two different people,” says Professor Bate.

A further facet, which is yet to be fully investigated, is ‘spotting’ faces in a crowd, which many of Professor Bate’s super-recognisers claim to be particularly proficient at, but she concedes, “it is possible that some people may be ‘super-spotters’ yet not excel at other tasks.”

If you think you are super-recogniser, you can register to participate in Professor Bate’s research.

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