Hey good lookin’: how super-recognisers remember faces

People who are good at learning and remembering new faces may do so by dividing them into parts like pieces of a puzzle, and they seem to focus less on the eyes.

A study by psychologists at UNSW Sydney and University of Wollongong has challenged the prevailing view that ‘super recognisers’  — people with exceptional face recognition abilities — rely on processing faces ‘holistically.’ Their results are published in Psychological Science.

“It’s been a long-held belief that to remember a face well you need to have a global impression, basically by looking at the centre and seeing the face as a whole,” says lead researcher Dr James Dunn.

“But our research shows that super-recognisers are still able to recognise faces better than others even when they can only see smaller regions at a time. This suggests that they can piece together an overall impression from smaller chunks, rather than from a holistic impression taken in a single glance.”

Read more: Why seeing fake faces isn’t, well, weird

The researchers compared the recall skills of ‘super recognisers’ to people with ‘average’ recall skills in an experiment where only small areas of a face were revealed at a time.

In the experiment, 37 super-recognisers and 68 average recognisers looked at faces on a computer screen. These were viewed through a ‘spotlight’ that captured between 60% of the face, down to just 12%.

Using eye-tracking technology, each person had five seconds to scan the outline of a face. Only the parts of the face their gaze illuminated were revealed in detail, with the rest blurred beyond recognition. As participants looked around the face new details were revealed.

The results showed super-recognisers continued to perform better when only seeing small parts of a face and seemed to spend less time looking at eyes than other participants.

The researchers say their experiment changes the way we think about why some people are better than others at committing a face to memory.

“We think one of the things they’re doing uniquely is exploring the face more to find information that is useful for remembering or recognising a person later. So when super-recognisers learn a face, it is more like putting together pieces in a jigsaw puzzle than taking a single snapshot of the whole face,” says Dunn.

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