17 November 2020

Super-recognisers never forget a face

The Back Page

UNSW researchers are finding people with extraordinary facial recognition powers using an online test.

Most people have some kind of minor superpower. Perhaps they can tie their shoelaces unusually quickly, have perfect pitch or can cry on command.

But it’s rare to stumble upon a community of people who have the same minor superpower as you.

Super-recognisers have extraordinary powers of facial recognition; they never forget a face.

Now, an online test created by researchers at UNSW is shedding light on this small subset of people who can, in extreme cases, spend a few seconds scanning a stranger in a supermarket and then remember their face years later.

These people make up around 2-3% of the population and have Facebook algorithm-level facial recognition skills that would make them highly recruitable in airport/casino security or law enforcement.

The researchers have screened over 31,000 people using their UNSW Face Test since 2017.

The test was designed to be hard, with a recognition memory task and a match-to-sample sorting task involving the faces of 236 consenting university undergraduates.

No one scored 100%; the highest score was 97%, with most people scoring between 50 and 60%.

The study, published in PLOS One, was useful because it helped scientists understand what happened when people saw both familiar and unfamiliar faces.

The development of this test for facial recognition might also be useful to government and commercial agencies who are looking for people with this super-recognition ability.

Being able to recognise faces at a higher-than-normal rate can be a little weird sometimes.

Duncan, who works in recruitment, said: “People are always extremely flattered when you remember them, or if we haven’t actually met in person and I’ve only seen their picture on social media they are usually pretty shocked.”

Marcus finds his superpower a bit awkward: “I am quite social, so I tend to walk up to people I remember and soon realise they don’t remember me”, he said.

“I often have to lie that I’ve never met or seen people before,” said Sallie. “It freaks them out. ‘Oh I saw you last week at Woolworths’ makes you sound like a stalker.”

There are some upsides too, such as being able to immediately figure out which show you saw that actor play in before…

Research has shown that extraordinary facial recognition skills were not correlated with IQ, but they did appear to have a strong genetic component.

You can’t practice hard to join this exclusive club; you need to be born into it.

If you see something stupid, say something stupid… Are you struggling with your minor superpower? Tell me all about it – felicity@medicalrepublic.com.au.

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