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Super Recognition

Our laboratory also examines people who are exceptionally good at face recognition. While most people are very good at the recognition of highly familiar faces (i.e. those of family, friends and colleagues), we vary much more substantially in our ability to recognize faces which we have had little exposure to. Importantly, this skill is required in many security and policing scenarios, such as passport control, CCTV-to-image matching, and spotting a missing or wanted person in a crowd or unexpected context. It is therefore striking that most of us perform rather poorly at tasks requiring the recognition of unfamiliar faces.

In 2009, the first report of people with extraordinary face recogntiion skills (so-called "super-recognizers") was published, followed by a further investigation in 2012. Both papers examined the performance of super-recognizers on laboratory-based tasks, using tests that are typically used to assess those with prosopagnosia. In the last year, our laboratory has published two papers that examine the performance of super-recognizers on more applied tests of face recognition that resemble tasks that are frequently encountered in policing and national security settings. While our findings indicate that super-recognizers outperform typical perceivers at these tasks, they also suggest that current tests used to identify super-recognizers are not suitable for use with this population. Further, it seems that different super-recognizers excel at different tasks: some are excellent at face matching whereas others are better at face memory.

Crowd of Faces

Our current work is exploring this issue further, and we are developing more sensitive tests for the identification of different types of super recognition. We are also exploring the theoretical underpinnings of super recognition, and in a recent paper compare the eye movements of super-recognizers, those with developmental prosopagnosia and typical participants. Surprisingly, we found that super-recognizers spend more time examining the nose and less time examining the eyes. It may be that the central region of the face is an optimal viewing position that allows information relevant to facial identity to be most efficiently extracted.

We are working with key security and policing agencies, and are currently developing a new sister website that focuses on this work. More information will follow shortly, but in the meantime you can read summaries of our research in these articles in the New Scientist and Scientific American magazines.

The full-text of our papers can be accessed via the following links: Applied Cognitive Psychology (applications to policing), PLoS ONE (applications to passport controls), and the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology (eye movement paper). We have also published a more theoretical paper on super recognition that may be of interest to some readers.

If you have been asked to read the information on this page by your employer and would like to be screened for super recognition, please register your interest with your organization. If we are not currently working with your organization and you would like to enquire about our screening and research protocols, please contact Dr Sarah Bate here. If you are a member of the public who believes they may be a super-recognizer and would like to participate in our research, please register here.