The identification of superior face recognition skills

Research Institution / Organisation

Bournemouth University

In Collaboration With

Dorset Police

Principal Researcher

Dr Sarah Bate

Level of Research


Project Start Date

August 2016

Research Context

While most people can easily recognise highly familiar faces, our recognition of unfamiliar faces (i.e. those we have had little exposure to) is poor and affected by many influences and biases. An extreme example is when police officers misidentified and fatally shot Jean Charles de Menezes following the 2005 London bombings - an example of the “own-race bias” whereby people find it easier to recognise individuals from their own race than others. Yet, most police officers are unaware of these limitations on human face recognition.

Recent work has identified people with extraordinary face recognition skills. In addition to exploring the use of these “super-recognizers” in policing scenarios, research from Bournemouth University has examined the cognitive underpinnings of the skill. It has been found that super-recognizers tend to look more at the centre of the face, whereas typical participants look more towards the eyes.

We are now working with Dorset Police to implement a testing battery that can identify officers who are particularly skilled at certain face recognition tasks. Our research to date indicates that there may be sub-types of super-recognizers, and the same individuals may not be proficient at all tasks. While some people are very good at deciding whether two faces are of the same person, others are very good at spotting faces in a crowd, and others are very good at recognising faces from memory. Some may be more proficient at recognising the faces of children or those from other races, creating more complex subtypes of super recognition than previously thought.

Our objectives are therefore twofold:

  1. to educate all officers on the limitations of the human unfamiliar face recognition system, and
  2. to evaluate the use of screening tests that can identify officers who are particularly proficient at specific tasks involving face recognition.

Research Methodology

Police officers of all ages, ranks and positions are being invited to take part in this study. The first phase of data collection will be carried out online. Officers will be invited to complete an educational e-module about the human face recognition system, and then to participate in three screening tests that assess their ability to perceive, memorise and locate specific faces. They will then take part in a second online screening session at least one week later. Officers who reach a criterion score on at least one of the three processes (i.e. face perception, recognition and location) will be invited to complete a face-to-face follow-up session. A number of more specific tests (manipulating variables such as the age or ethnicity or the faces) will be completed while eye-movements are monitored.

Existing data provides norms for the tests, and officers who perform more than two standard deviations from the mean on any one process will be deemed as potential “super-recognizers” for use in specific tasks. Longer-term data will be collected to test on-the-job performance following screening. Eye-movement data will be analysed for theoretical study of the underpinnings of super recognition, and may inform the development of face-training techniques.

Interim reports and publications

Bobak, A.K., Parris, B.A., Gregory, N.J., Bennetts, R.J., & Bate, S. (in press). Eye-movement strategies in developmental prosopagnosia and “super” face recognition. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology.

Bobak, A.K., Bennetts, R.J., Parris, B.A., Jansari, A., & Bate, S. (2016). An in-depth cognitive examination of individuals with superior face recognition skills. Cortex, 82, 48-62.

Bobak, A.K., Dowsett, A., & Bate, S. (2016). Solving the border control problem: Evidence of enhanced face matching in individuals with extraordinary face recognition skills. PLos One, 11, e0148148.

Bobak, A.K., Hancock, P.J.B., & Bate, S. (2016). Super-recognizers in action: Evidence from face matching and face memory tasks. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 30, 81-91.

Date due for completion

December 2018
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