'Super-recognizers,' with extraordinary face recognition ability, never forget a face

May 19, 2009
Richard Russell, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Psychology, says there is a wide range of ability to recognize faces. Photograph by Matt Craig/Harvard News Office

Some people say they never forget a face, a claim now bolstered by psychologists at Harvard University who've discovered a group they call "super-recognizers": those who can easily recognize someone they met in passing, even many years later.

The new study suggests that skill in facial recognition might vary widely among humans. Previous research has identified as much as 2 percent of the population as having "face-blindness," or prosopagnosia, a condition characterized by great difficulty in recognizing . For the first time, this new research shows that others excel in face recognition, indicating that the trait could be on a spectrum, with prosopagnosics on the low end and super-recognizers at the high end.

The research is published in Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, and was led by Richard Russell, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Psychology at Harvard, with co-authors Ken Nakayama, Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology at Harvard, and Brad Duchaine of the University College London.

The research involved administering standardized face recognition tests. The super-recognizers scored far above average on these tests—higher than any of the normal control subjects.

"There has been a default assumption that there is either normal face recognition, or there is disordered face recognition," says Russell. "This suggests that's not the case, that there is actually a very wide range of ability. It suggests a different model—a different way of thinking about face recognition ability, and possibly even other aspects of perception, in terms of a spectrum of abilities, rather than there being normal and disordered ability."

Super-recognizers report that they recognize other people far more often than they are recognized. For this reason, says Russell, they often compensate by pretending not to recognize someone they met in passing, so as to avoid appearing to attribute undue importance to a fleeting encounter.

"Super-recognizers have these extreme stories of recognizing people," says Russell. "They recognize a person who was shopping in the same store with them two months ago, for example, even if they didn't speak to the person. It doesn't have to be a significant interaction; they really stand out in terms of their ability to remember the people who were actually less significant."

One woman in the study said she had identified another woman on the street who served as her as a waitress five years earlier in a different city. Critically, she was able to confirm that the other woman had in fact been a waitress in the different city. Often, super-recognizers are able to recognize another person despite significant changes in appearance, such as aging or a different hair color.

If abilities do vary, testing for this may be important for assessing eyewitness testimony, or for interviewing for some jobs, such as security or those checking identification.

Russell theorizes that super-recognizers and those with face-blindness may only be distinguishable today because our communities differ from how they existed thousands of years ago.

"Until recently, most humans lived in much smaller communities, with many fewer people interacting on a regular basis within a group," says Russell. "It may be a fairly new phenomenon that there's even a need to recognize large numbers of ."

Source: Harvard University (news : web)

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zevkirsh
not rated yet May 19, 2009
im a super recognizer. i have crazy stories. seeing people in the nyc subway months ago and remembering them.
or seeing people from grade school , and recognizing their older yet essentially unchanged faces years later.
Simonsez
5 / 5 (1) May 19, 2009
This article and study really stuck out to me as the first of its kind I had heard of - people are always shocked that I remember them, their faces and in most cases their names. I never gave it much thought other than to observe that it seemed to be a trait not shared by family, friends or coworkers. I have worked with over 300 people in the last four years, and I can recall each of their faces and names, as well as the faces and names of many people I've met in the last several years, people and teachers I knew in high school, middle school, grade school and even into childhood ages 3-5! I had always considered it an odd trait, now I have it confirmed for me. Thank you, PhysOrg!
docknowledge
not rated yet May 19, 2009
zevkirsh and Simonsez, are there any other concepts you would use to distinguish your thinking from that of others? Reason: I knew someone with a "photographic" memory. Really astounding, could recite a random article out of a three foot stack of magazines. But I noticed that he very much preferred citing opinions, rather than giving his own?
Birger
not rated yet May 20, 2009
If this is a consistent talent, employers could look for it when recruiting. For instance, the police could have specialist "face recognizers" just as they have specialist blood spatter analysts when investigating a crime. It would be really useful when looking for people who want to disappear and therefore make superficial changes to their appearence.
Au-Pu
not rated yet May 20, 2009
Whilst I don't suffer from face blindness I am at the lower end of the scale. People appear to need to become more important to me in some respect before I commit their faces and details to memory.
In the early stages of forming a connection this can be embarrassing.
I know of others who have remarkable abilities.
I know of police officers who have been described as having photographic memories and who would regularly arrest people in crowds because they recognised them from a wanted photo.
I was introduced to a person when I was in my late teens, it was only a courtesy introduction because he was next to the person I had called to see. We had no conversation.
Almost 20 years later, when I was nearing 40 years of age and in a city more than 1,000 miles away I was approached by a person who greeted me and whom I did not recognise. To me he was a complete stranger. He said "you probably don't recognise me" Which was true. He went on to remind me of the introduction 20 years earlier including the name of the person I had called to see the place and my name. I was amazed. I could not even remember having been introduced to him, let alone remember him.
So these people really do exist.
My youngest son appears to have some talent in that area, though I don't know exactly how good it is yet.
Though it does appear at this stage to be fairly impressive.
He also has excellent capture of information and he has almost instant recall and in full detail
Whilst my wife is better at facial recognition than I am but has to rely upon records for information retrieval our son certainly doesn't appear to have acquired this talent genetically, it appears to be very much an individual thing, i.e. a skill unique to him.
My skills are different.
I can recall details out of articles I have read and or books etc.
I am also able, once I can get a mental image of the scene at the time, to recall conversations verbatim.
That is both sides or multiple sides if more than one person is present. But with no mental picture of the situation then there is no recall at all.
It is almost as if I have a full video and audio recording in my head. I just need to find it and the mental image is the key.
My son is different, you simply ask and it is there.
When he was about 9 or 10 we were at a war museum. There was an old soldier next to us he would have been in his 80's. There were six rifles displayed on the wall. My son looked at them and reeled off their make, model, caliber and rate of fire. The old soldier just looked at this little kid in amazement.
So yes they are out there and there are probably more of them than we realise.
PaulLove
not rated yet May 20, 2009
Some of this may also be environmental. I travel alot and know a wide range of diverse individuals. I see people everywhere, run into them randomly thousands of miles from home in restaraunts airports etc. Part of this may be more prevalent in people who know more people, are required to remember large numbers of business contacts or travel alot.

People constantly mention how many people I seem to know or who know me. Stop and think about how many people you pass daily, take a small town say 100,000 people think about the number of people you pass, maybe a few hundred on a side walk, a 20 to several hundred at work, a few hundred more sitting in cars at lights or passing on the highway. The average person probably passes withing sight of thousands of people a day and we just tune them out.

The more people you see the more you look for them. /shrug just my two cents worth
Simonsez
not rated yet May 20, 2009
PaulLove,

I will agree that nurture certainly plays a role in this phenomenon; a person who has this trait born into them but who is never exposed to any great amount of people, will not observe themselves or be observed to have any particularly noteworthy level of recognition. Meanwhile as you said, someone like you or I who in daily life consider people to be potential contacts for business or what have you, will in effect train themselves or practice and hone that ability, and in this manner be better at it.

So, certainly, nature and nurture both affect this trait. I am certain that with proper training, even a person who was known for not being able to remember faces, will begin to show an aptitude or at least marked improvement in their ability for facial recognition.



docknowledge,

I (unfortunately) do not count myself among those with photographic or otherwise eidetic memory. In fact, my ability to recall information in both the long and short term is fair to middling at best. I am able to vividly recall several memories from childhood and on, but my short term memory could surely use some tempering. I will concede, my work schedule and the nature of my work (constant intake and processing of information), and my tendency to daydream and perform thought experiments, may have an impact on my ability to retain short-term, day-to-day information. Unless I write something down or e-mail instructions to myself, I tend to forget to do things. There are a variety of factors that have to do with this, I'm sure, but I thought it noteworthy to point out that I am no memory genius, just very able to recall faces and names.

I will also point out that, as faces/names are patternistic, my ability to recognize them could also be related to my excellent pattern recognition scores in standardized and "IQ" tests of all kinds - I tend to score perfect or near-perfect in this area.
Catapult
not rated yet May 21, 2009
Wow - After all these years I'm not a freak! Thank goodness this study came to light - I never questioned how I was able to remember so many faces but anyone I ended up running into sure did. Go me.
HSF
not rated yet Jun 01, 2009
I have always said that I never forget a face. I can recognize a person I haven't seen in 20 plus years no matter how much they changed. I even recognize people that I see in one store in passing, then when I go to another store from there if they happen to also go to the same store as I do I will recognize them. Even though I just saw them in passing. It's nice to know that there has been a study about this. I would love to participate in any other studies about this type of memory. I may actually be a Super Recognizer or close to it. It usually onle takes me seeing a face once to be able to recognize it later, and I don't even have to talk to the person. I can even see their face in my head and if I knew them when they were younger I can see their face from back then too.
Nettie
not rated yet Jun 08, 2009
Oh thank goodness. Finally I have some sort of explanation for my ability to remember people I've met briefly months and even decades before. Although this article puts a positive spin on it, I consider this inability to forget inconsequential faces a bit of a social hazard. How many times I've been over familiar with people who I've only met fleetingly once, having mistaken them for someone I know I can't even recount. Or assumed a face I've only seen a few times was more than just an acquaintance. And I spent most of my childhood being hurt because most of the time I'd recognize people who'd quite forgotten me.
It feels like you're being constantly rejected, and I wonder how many other super-recognizers have experienced this and what effect it had on their self esteem. On the upside, sometimes people are pleasantly surprised when you remember them and their personal interests. It's like the reverse of autism. In the fact that I am too socially interested in other people and absolutely useless in remembering facts, things or systems.