As It Happens

Good with faces? This test will tell you if you're a 'super-recognizer'

If you have an uncanny knack for remembering people's faces, you might be what's known as a "super-recognizer." Australian researchers say their online facial recognition test is the best way to confirm whether you fit the bill. 

Everyone is hard-wired to recognize faces, but only a select few meet the 'super-recognizer' criteria

People who are exceptionally good at identifying people's faces from memory are known as 'super-recognizers.' (adamkaz/Getty Images)

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If you have an uncanny knack for remembering people's faces, even if you've only met them briefly or seen them in passing, you might be what's known as a "super-recognizer."

Australian researchers say their online facial recognition test is the best way to confirm whether you fit the bill. 

"We set out to make a more challenging test to measure the ability of super-recognizers," James Dunn, a cognitive psychologist at the University of New South Wales, told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

Dunn and his colleagues have been using the test to learn about super-recognizers since 2017, and published their findings this week in the journal PLOS One

They found that while everyone has some hard-wired ability to parse faces and facial expressions, there are a select few among us who are just naturally better at it. 

"We have all this infrastructure in our head for recognizing people," Dunn said.

"Now, what we're finding is that just like other cognitive abilities, like intelligence or personality characteristics, face recognition also seems to be a skill that is passed on in your genes that varies ... from person to person as well."

How the test works 

The test, Dunn says, is exceptionally difficult compared to other online facial recognition tests. First, users are given a few seconds to memorize high-resolution photos of people's faces. 

Then, they're tasked with picking out those faces they've just seen from a series of new photos, some of which show the same people in lower quality images, or at different ages, or with different lighting, settings and expressions. 

"Then in the second part of the test, you do a similar thing, except that instead of just saying yes or no to one photo, you actually are given four different photos and you have to decide if any of those match the person you just saw," Dunn said. 

The UNSW Sydney facial recognition test asks participants to memorize high-rez photos, then identify those faces from subsequent photos that may be older, lower quality or just generally different. (PLOS One)

So far, 31,000 people have taken the test, with the average participant scoring between 50 and 60 per cent. To be a super-recognizer, you have to score more than 70 per cent. 

Just 11 people scored more than 90 per cent, Dunn said, and not a single test subject has scored 100.

"So we know that we haven't fully found the perfect super-recognizer," Dunn said. 

The life of a super-recognizer 

So what's it like being a super-recognizer? Dunn says the ones they've interviewed are "very happy."

"They love having this unique ability," Dunn said. "They've been quite open with the friends and family, just kind of being that go-to recognizer."

And their ability is impressive. Super-recognizers can pick out people they've ever-so-briefly met at an event, or just seen in passing. Some retain faces for months, or even years. 

One participant told researchers she remembered watching a professional photographer taking pictures of kids playing in a small park near Les Halles, Paris. Then, 10 years later, she recognized that same photographer while out for breakfast in Australia.

James Dunn is a cognitive psychologist at the University of New South Wales and the co-author of a new study on 'super-recognizers.' (Submitted by James Dunn)

Some find it useful for their careers, Dunn says, especially if they work in the arts or anything that involves frequently meeting with a lot of clients. 

"But we're also equally likely to find [super-] recognizers in employment where it may not be relevant, like maybe an accountant or an engineer," he said. 

In fact, there's nothing really that ties the super-recognizers together. Previous research suggests it's not a skill that can be learned, which leads Dunn and his colleagues to suspect it is genetic. 

But there can be some downsides to having a genetic super power.

"I know that some people also say they have to lie about recognizing people because it might come across as a little bit creepy if I say, 'Oh, I have met you. We were in the same line at the supermarket just three days ago,'" Dunn said.

"I've heard stories from a super-recognizer that they were about to go on a trip and spotted someone at the airport, couldn't remember where that person was from, and basically spent the first couple of weeks of that trip trying to figure it out." 


Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes. 

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