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Facing facts about forgetting faces

Faces in the crowd

Are you someone who never forgets a face? Sorry to say you may want to rethink things.

It turns out very few of us are any good at facial recognition and there isn't much we can do to improve our skills. 

Professor Mike Burton, a recent arrival to Bond University, is a Professor of Psychology and facial recognition expert. 

He’ll deliver a free talk on the science of face perception at Bond University on Friday, November18 as part of Bond’s Professorial Lecture Series. 

It's an area of research with many practical applications.

“A lot of attention is given to photographic identification and fake and fraudulent passport issue and detection," he says. 

How people perform the act of checking is also the focus of much of the research. It tells us that we are not able to perform it anywhere near as well as we think we can.

“The beguiling thing about it is that we are actually extremely good at recognising familiar faces in all kinds of conditions,” Professor Burton says. “But the fact remains that we are poor at recognising people we don't know. There's never really been a deep understanding that such a disparity exists, so we’ve have gone along setting up recognition systems and processes that are often contrary to our basic capabilities.” 

Police line ups are a perfect example.

“I’m sorry to say they are next to completely hopeless,” Professor Burton says. “Memory is unreliable, and the confusion created by conflicting faces alongside each other adds a further complicating variable. And you still must overcome the well-established fact that people are simply poor at identifying faces they aren't familiar with.” 

Pulling the wool over the eyes of a bouncer at the door to a licenced premises is another.

“If someone is checking a photo ID for a birthdate and a face manually, they tend to focus on the date alone. If the date is correct, the research tells us they’ll let just about anyone through.”

Same or different?
Are these faces the same or different? *

Human error is common in circumstances where facial recognition is required. 

“We have tested passport officers in Sydney, for instance. We set them up behind a desk and asked them to carry out identity checks as they ordinarily would. They made errors about 10% of the time on average. Their results were pretty much the same as the results logged by untrained, inexperienced students completing the same task under the same conditions.”  

Despite these slightly troubling kinds of test results, there is an upside. 

“Here in Australia, the Customs Office, for example, has always been incredibly good at accepting the research and listening to what it tells us. It allows us to tailor working conditions and processes to give people the best possible chance to achieve the most accurate results in a work context.” 

It may also allow employers to target that small group of potential employees who may carry a natural gift for facial recognition.

“Some are simply better at recognising faces than others. They’re simply wired that way. When training won’t ever do a great deal to improve recognitions skills, there may be advantages attached to recruiting from a group of people who are particularly good at it.” 

These people are known as super-recognisers.

“The UK police have deliberately recruited super-recognisers for specific roles in the past.” 

But every superpower has its kryptonite.

“Super-recognition skills come with their own unique psychological burden. Often super-recognisers are hesitant to apply their skills for fear of being annoyingly cognisant of familiar faces. They often suppress their skill to a significant degree, so they don’t stand out.”  

Professor Burton says his lecture will appeal to a broad audience.

“It’s a genuinely fascinating area of research and I think. Whether you are someone who works in a relevant industry, or you are simply curious about how the mind works, I'm sure you'll take something away from my presentation.” 


Details:  The science of face perception: Recognising friends and checking passports with Professor Mike Burton 

Date: Friday, 18 November 2022 

Time: 4.30pm 

Where: University Centre, Building 6, Level 3, Theatre 2 (6_3_14) 


Register here:  Professorial Lecture Series Tickets, Fri 18/11/2022 at 4:30 pm | Eventbrite


* The faces are the same. 

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